main postsThe Ba'al Shem Tov

The Ba'al Shem Tov: Dangers on the Road

Translated from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s trilogy of stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Or Yisrael, Vol. III p. 131.

Once, when he was traveling with his holy group of disciples, the Ba’al Shem Tov suddenly said, “Pray and repent, for the uncircumcised (Alexi, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s wagon driver) wants to kill us.

The disciples were shocked, for Alexi had been loyally working for the Ba’al Shem Tov for years, but then the Ba’al Shem Tov repeated his warning. The disciples did what they did and continued riding in the wagon until they reached a certain place.

The Ba’al Shem Tov then called to Alexi and said to him: “Tell me the truth, what were you thinking when we passed by that certain place?”

Alexi immediately fell to the ground and answered, “In truth, I thought about killing all of you.”

“You know that I sense everything and that you cannot hide anything from me,” the Ba’al Shem Tov responded. “Why did you think of doing such a thing?”

“I don’t know. Some evil spirit stung me,” Alexi said, begging for forgiveness.

Later, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that years ago at that place, a number of Jews had been murdered. The impression of the murder remained there. Hence, when the uncircumcised Alexi came to that place, a spirit of murder gripped him. But now, the Ba’al Shem Tov continued, when we passed through here and prayed and repented, that spirit was nullified, and from now this place will no longer be harmful for Jews.

(Likutei Sippurim p. 15)

On the Road

Evil, we learn, leaves an impression. A remnant of the impure husk (the kelipah) remains in the place where the sin was committed and it lies in ambush, waiting to be actualized. Good also leaves an impression and its impression is surely even more pronounced, for as the sages say, “An amount of good has more influence than the same amount of misery.”[1] The impression left by both good and evil might be intermingled and those who are passing by are most vulnerable to their influence.[2]

Traveling is prone to being a dangerous time[3] because a person is in effect leaving his own territory, the safe space he has built for himself with his hard work and must face the unchecked spirits whisking through the world.[4] There are spirits that might invade and influence the weary traveler. If a person has merits, he might be influenced by a good spirit, by the positive impression made by a mitzvah or left after a tzaddik was present in the space through which he is passing. If he does not merit, and if his nature is to stumble in life, the evil spirit of an impure husk that lingers in that space might penetrate his mind and influence him. This all follows the saying of the sages “On the path that a person wishes to follow, he will be led.”[5]

Travelers are the rectifiers of the world, for the struggle is over the public domain. It is there that the impressions of the deeds of humanity—both the good and the bad that fill the air of the world—are either reinforced or weakened. When a person sets out on a journey, he must be prepared to leave his privacy behind and enter the public realm not as an individual, but as a representative of his people. From now on, he has a role, whether he likes it or not; a role in the universal struggle aimed at redeeming the world, all by virtue of the fact that he has embarked on a journey and is a traveler. His stance regarding what he sees, hears, and senses will either empower or weaken those things, all in accordance with his nature and his will.

The Ba’al Shem Tov liked the road and would travel often. His seemingly wild and uncouth custom was to not guide the horses (as is related in many stories). Instead, they seemed to trot freely, following their own path. It is true that his horses did not need to be told where to go because somehow, they already knew where the Ba’al Shem Tov was headed. Still, it is possible that wherever his horses might take him was good in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s eyes. For wherever the Ba’al Shem Tov ended up, he had his work cut out for him. It might be an evil spirit he needed to fight, or a good spirit that needed to be freed from its imprisonment. As the sages say, there is always novelty: “It is impossible for there to be study that does not produce a new idea”[6] and there is no road that does not lead to the refinement of reality. Indeed, wherever he went, the Ba’al Shem Tov went with the verse, “Know Him [God] in all your ways.”[7] God was his destination wherever he traveled.

The Ba’al Shem Tov did not fear dangerous places. He feared nothing but God. Furthermore, he had a special interest in bringing his disciples to these places. There is no better place for repentance than a place where Jews have sanctified the Name of Heaven. We can then more directly surmise that the Ba’al Shem Tov brought his disciples to a place where holiness had made a deeply engraved impression in order to encourage them to have thoughts of true teshuvah—a deep and unencumbered return to one’s true connection with God.[8]

Be Alert

Alexi the driver was like a wide-open vessel, prone to integrating all the negative energy floating around from the past. He correctly realized that it was an evil spirit that had stung him when he passed through that place and made him desire to murder the holy group. Conversely, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples did not feel the imprint left over from the sanctification of God’s Name made by the murdered Jews and the Ba’al Shem Tov had to make them aware of it. Why this difference? Was Alexi more sensitive than the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples?

The explanation is that will and volition play a role in the intensity of the imprint or impression left by an act. Murder constitutes the very depth of impurity. To murder, a person must reveal the fifth and highest level of the sitra achra (the other side). In effect, this highest level of the other side parallels the highest level of the soul of holiness known as the yechidah—the singular one. Conversely, sanctifying God’s Name by the Jews that were murdered was a passive act, because they were murdered against and despite their will. In effect, their will was not active in this case. For that reason, though their self-sacrifice revealed the highest level of their souls—their yechidah—because it happened against their will, they left a much weaker imprint on the physical space. To put it a little differently, with respect to holiness, the experience of the yechidah is one of complete nullification and subsummation in God. But the yechidah, as it were, of “the other side” is the amplification of the self and its intensification to the point that the murderer’s existence becomes capable of destroying the existence of another person.

The result was that Alexi was able to sense the imprint left by the murder much more clearly than the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciples were able to feel the imprint left by the murdered Jews.

From this, we learn a major rule: A sojourner must sharpen his senses. He must be as vital and active as possible to get the most out of his travels. Dangerous roads are best left to only the most experienced travelers—those who are sensitive enough to identify the positive imprints and act upon them. It is not recommended to wander pointlessly. If a Jew is on the road and not carefully watching his steps, he is likely to be influenced by the spiritual imprints made along his route instead of influencing them.

By his very essence, the tzaddik is one who strives to affect his surroundings and not have them influence him. His entire being is one of active and conscious vitality. He passes through the roads of the world with a clear objective: to gather every spark that will come his way. Hence, his senses are alert. There are many stories of tzaddikim who suddenly stopped in their paths, saying that they smelled a good smell or sensed holiness in that place. Later, it turned out that years before, a different tzaddik had stayed in that place. The tzaddikim were able to sense the imprint made on that location.

Image by C. Birkholz

[1] Tosefta Sotah 4:1.

[2] The first murder in the world was the murder of Abel at the hands of his brother, Cain. The spirits of the murderer and the victim enclothe those people on the road. A murderous spirit of murder impregnates those who belong to the soul root of Cain, while a focused spirit of prayer impregnates those who belong to the soul root of Abel.

[3]. “All roads are considered dangerous” (כָּל הַדְּרָכִים בְּחֶזְקַת סַכָּנָה), from Kohelet Rabbah 3:2. The letters of this phrase from the sages can be permuted to read, “Mordechai’s bride is strong in [treating] danger (כַּלַּת מָרְדְּכַי חֲזָקָה בְּסַכָּנָה). Mordechai’s bride of course refers to Queen Esther who left her comfort zone, Mordechai’s house, for a foreign environment that was the polar opposite to her essence, until she even said, “And if I perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16). It is specifically under those conditions that her powers were revealed and activated to bring salvation to the entire Jewish people.

[4]. In the words of the Mishnah (Avot 3:4) “Rabbi Chanina the son of Chachina'i would say: One who stays awake at night, or travels alone on the road, and turns his heart to idleness is obligated (guilty) for (the loss of) his soul.” The Maharal (Derech Chaim on this mishnah) explains this at length:

For blessed God made man to live with other people, and one who does not do so is considered outside the natural order…. For when a person separates himself from habitation with others, he has no place at all. A person has a great measure of safekeeping when he dwells in his place, which provides his space. That is why the word for “place” [in Hebrew] means “to sustain” as it sustains and guards his existence…. Furthermore, a person is safeguarded when he is among other people… and has forfeited his life when he goes out of the natural order. Because, when he is in the place that he belongs, a person is protected by blessed God, Who safeguards the world….

Still, as great as the dangers are when departing the pale of settlement, there are great rewards for the accomplished individual who knows how to conduct himself. This was the reasoning used by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov who sent all his disciples—until this very day—to recluse in the fields and forests (Likkutei Moharan 1:52):

Know that the primary mode of self-nullification that a person can attain regarding his sense of being, thereby becoming nothing and being included in the Oneness of the blessed God, is only by means of solitary prayer (hitbodedut). One needs a special place and time so that he will not be distracted. The time is the night, (as in the mishnah that reads:) “He who stays awake at night”—for then all are asleep. The place is on a secluded path; not one that is frequented by the public, so that travelers will not interrupt him. It should be specifically in a place where people do not go; that is where he should go and seclude himself, as the mishnah describes: “he who travels alone on the road.” And then he can clear his heart of everything, and he can nullify all sense of his being, as the mishnah continues: “He turns his heart into nothingness [i.e., self-nullification before God].” And then, when he is completely nullified, then he is included in the Oneness of the blessed God, and then arrives at “necessity,” which the mishnah describes with the words, “he is guilty” [which also means “necessary”] for God is the absolute necessary existence of all reality, and everything else is only a possible part of reality. When he is nullified and included in His Oneness, then his own existence is transformed from being merely a possibility and is included in the necessary existence of the Absolute. This the mishnah alludes to with the words, “He is guilty himself” [meaning, “His self now has a necessary existence”].

[5]. Makot 10:2.

[6]. Chagigah 3a.

[7]. Proverbs 3:6.

[8]. This reasoning can be used to explain the natural reaction of faithful Jews in the Land of Israel who act to build a Jewish settlement in locations where Jews were murdered or injured. The sanctification of God’s Name accomplished while fulfilling the mitzvah of conquering and settling the Land of Israel is the foundation and secret of the existence of the new settlement. In addition, the Hebrew root for “murder” (רצח) is a permutation of the word for “trust” (רחץ), in Aramaic, suggesting that a place where a Jew was murdered has the capacity to strengthen our trust in God even more.

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