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The Ba’al Shem Tov: The Torah Comes Alive

Rabbi Dov Ber (later to be known as the Maggid of Mezritch) heard of the great holy Rabbi, the Ba’al Shem Tov; that many people journeyed to him and that he performed great and awesome deeds through his prayers. His interest was piqued. Rabbi Dov Ber was a great scholar, proficient in all of the Talmud and the poskim, and he had extensive knowledge of the wisdom of Kabbalah. He resolved to visit the Ba’al Shem Tov to test him. Rabbi Dov Ber was a great adherent to his studies. As soon as he was on the road for a day or two and was unable to continue his studies as he could at home, he began to regret his journey.

When he finally did arrive at the Ba’al Shem Tov, he expected to hear Torah from him, but the Ba’al Shem Tov told him a story instead. He recounted how he traveled for several days without any bread left to give to his non-Jewish coachman, and then a poor non-Jew appeared with a sack of bread from which he bought bread to sustain his coachman, and other such stories. Then, on the second day, Rabbi Dov Ber visited the Ba’al Shem Tov again, and the Ba’al Shem Tov told him about another incident where on his journey he had no hay left to feed the horses, and how providentially he found some, and so on.

All the stories that the Ba’al Shem Tov told contained profound and great wisdom for those who understood. However, Rabbi Dov Ber did not grasp this, and therefore, when he returned to his inn, he said to his servant: "I would have liked to depart for our home immediately today, but since it is very dark, we will stay here until midnight when the moon rises and its light appears, and then we will set out on our way."

At midnight, as Rabbi Dov Ber was preparing to leave, the Ba’al Shem Tov sent his servant to call for him. Rabbi Dov Ber went to the Ba’al Shem Tov, who asked him: "Are you able to learn?" He replied: "Yes." The Ba’al Shem Tov then said: "So I have heard, that you know how to learn. Do you have knowledge of the wisdom of Kabbalah?" He answered: "Yes." The Ba’al Shem Tov told his servant: "Bring me the book Eitz Chaim (authored by the Arizal).” The Ba’al Shem Tov then pointed out a certain passage from the Eitz Chaim to Rabbi Dov Ber.

Rabbi Dov Ber responded, "I will take it to examine and ponder." Afterward, he explained to the Ba’al Shem Tov the simple meaning of that passage, to which the Ba’al Shem Tov said: "You know nothing." Rabbi Dov Ber reviewed it again and reiterated to the Ba’al Shem Tov, "The correct interpretation is as I have stated. If there is another understanding of higher significance, please tell me, and I will discern with whom is the truth."

The Ba’al Shem Tov told him, "Stand on your feet," and he stood. As he recited the passage, which contained several names of angels, the house immediately filled with light, and fire seemed to blaze around them. They physically perceived the angels mentioned.

The Ba’al Shem Tov then said to Rabbi Dov Ber, "It is true that the literal interpretation is as you said, but your learning lacked soul." Instantly, Rabbi Dov Ber instructed his servant to return home, while he stayed with the Ba’al Shem Tov to learn profound and great wisdom.

(Keter Shem Tov §424)

After all the challenges, the teacher and the student formed a deep bond of love. But why did the Ba’al Shem Tov initially create such a coarse and strange impression? Certainly, he did not want to push away those who came to him. It can be said that this was in the manner of "the left hand repels" which leads to "the right hand drawing closer." Yet, even so, there remains the question: why specifically in such an unusual way?

In the meeting between the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Maggid, two approaches to serving God converged: the non-Jews and the horses represent the general character of this world, the body and the animal soul, as experienced by Jews in those times and places. Towards this depiction, the Maggid felt a great alienation, whereas the Ba’al Shem Tov was at home within it. Prior to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the main path in Divine service was one of subduing and conquering the physical dimension. In contrast, Chasidut sought to reveal the Divinity shining within the body and to extract from it great powers for the service of God. If we eradicate the body as best as we can and let the soul act according to its Divine nature, we have not gained anything: the pure soul remains detached from the physical, just as it was before the entire process began. The physical worlds were created to elevate the soul further, to a higher level that is unattainable except through the body and by means of it. The soul’s descent into the body is "a descent for the purpose of an ascent."

In another version of the Maggid’s first meeting with the Ba’al Shem Tov, it is recounted that “the Maggid fasted seven or eight consecutive times from Sabbath to Sabbath and became very ill," and his reason for visiting the Ba’al Shem Tov was to seek healing. When we connect the two versions, we learn that in the stories of the non-Jews and the horses, the Ba’al Shem Tov aimed to challenge the Maggid's approach to serving God, a path that leaves the body and the animalistic soul in darkness, not truly making a dwelling for the Divine in the lower realms. This profound wisdom, hidden in the stories he told, highlights how the Maggid's previous method led to his illness, as the light of his Torah did not illuminate his body. Moreover, because of this approach, his Torah was like a body without a soul; when body and soul are not integrated in active spiritual work, even Torah study does not achieve this unity.

Indeed, the soul can only grasp the revelation of Divinity in the Torah through its attachment to the body. Despite all the flaws and limitations of physical existence, it is explained that in a certain limited but profound sense, the body resembles one of God’s most essential qualities: “His existence is independent of anything else” (מְצִיאוּתוֹ מֵעַצְמוּתוֹ). The body too conveys to its surroundings that its existence is from itself—as if independent of all else. Of course, this is a complete illusion. This point must be learned from the body, and from it inspiration and direction for serving God and understanding the words of the Torah can be drawn.

If we delve deeper, we can ask what exactly is the soul that was missing in the Maggid's learning? Generally, it is said that the Ba’al Shem Tov came into the world to reveal the secrets of the Torah and to make them accessible to everyone. This is true, but these secrets of the Torah are more than just interpretations that were previously unknown. They represent a different quality of Torah study, an approach that gives a completely different flavor to the study itself and to the service of God in general.

From the teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov, it is evident that his approach centers on love and fear of God. These should accompany all Torah study and serve as wings that allow it to soar upwards: "A Torah without fear and love does not ascend on high."[1] It can be said that this revelation was the main focus of what the Ba’al Shem Tov intended to teach throughout his life.

Recognizing the Divinity in the body and the world brings lofty insights and holiness down to the simple experiences of a person. Naturally, the presence of fear and love in the soul depends on the extent of its recognition of God's reality as being truly before its eyes. Only from a clear reality can genuine and strong emotions develop, such as those that can animate the words of the Torah and elevate them to Heaven above.

[1]. Tikkunei Zohar 10 (25b). Tanya ch. 41.

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