Fifty three years ago, on Sukkot of 5727 (1966), the Lubavitcher Rebbe recounted this extraordinary tale: Once a group of leading Yeshivah scholars in Poland visited Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov in his Sukkah. After closely inspecting the structural design of his Sukkah, these Yeshivah scholars unanimously declared it unkosher.
But the Baal Shem Tov maintained the validity of his Sukkah. Finally, the Baal Shem Tov opened his hand. Inside lay a small piece of parchment. The Yeshivah scholars took the parchment and found it to be a note (from heaven) saying: “The Sukkah of the Baal Shem Tov is kosher.” The note was signed by the archangel Metatron.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe then asked an obvious question: why did the Besht build his Sukkah in such a questionable manner. Then the Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that the Baal Shem Tov build his Sukkah in this seemingly unkosher way; in order to find merit within the Jewish People.
Knowing that many Jews who did build a Sukkah, didn’t build it according to the strict halakah, the Baal Shem Tov built his Sukkah in the most lenient manner possible, in order to validate every Sukkah built with a good heart, and thus declare the practice of the majority of less observant Jews to be within the spirit of Jewish observance.
The moral of this story is less about the kosher status of one man’s Sukkah than it is about the role of Jewish leaders. The Baal Shem Tov was trying to impress upon the ultra-orthodox Yeshivah scholars of Poland, who were constantly seeking to make the laws stricter and stricter, that a true Jewish leader must be willing to make not just material, but also spiritual sacrifices for his people.
Rabbis must be ready to compromise their own lofty, strict, religious standards for the sake of uplifting all the Jewish People, as Psalm 37:31 says: “The Torah of his God is in his heart”. This applies both to the less observant Jewish masses and the more observant elite leaders.
This insight explains why a rich and learned man like Reb Ephraim of Brody, a leader of the Jewish community, whose son Rabbi Avraham Gershon of Kitov, was head of a rabbinical court in Brody and a recognized authority in Talmud and Kabbalah, wanted his daughter Hanah to marry a synagogue janitor and ritual slaughter who had never graduated from a Yeshivah.
Because the first husband Ephraim had selected for his daughter, a young man highly recommended by his own son Rabbi Avraham Gershon, was very strict, pious, and the best student in a very famous Yeshivah. Yet this illui (a young Talmud genius) turned out to be a harsh, narrow minded, self righteous, overly judgmental person, who did not listen to or respect his wife.
It soon became evident that the illui was a failure as a husband, and Reb Ephraim paid him some money to divorce his daughter Hanah and leave town.
Now, Ephraim of Brody told his daughter Hanah, he was determined to find for her an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; who enjoyed encouraging people to worship God through joy, and who respected woman.
Unfortunately, long time study in a yeshivah did not usually stress these mentch like qualities and Ephraim was determined to avoid making another mistake like his first one.
One day Ephraim met a young man, newly arrived in Brody from a near by village, praying with great joy and enthusiasm.
Ephraim talked for a long time to the young man, Israel ben Eliezer, and learned that Israel ben Eliezer was truly an open minded, kind, positive and flexible mentch; one who enjoyed helping and encouraging people, and who respected woman. This was the kind of man Reb Ephraim wanted for his daughter Hanah.
As a young man, Yisra’el ben Eliezer (c.1700-1760) apparently worked at a variety of jobs, including ritual slaughterer, elementary school teacher, and circumciser. He had learned rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic and, though not a Talmudist, had become conversant with rabbinic literature.
He also set himself to learning both practical and contemplative Kabbalah from such mystical, ascetic types as Mosheh of Kitev. At the same time he started learning about herbal remedies, even from non-Jews.
His wife, Hanah, as I have already pointed out, was a divorcée (a fact rarely mentioned in Hassidic accounts) and the sister of the prominent yeshivah scholar Gershon of Kitev (always mentioned).
Sometime in the 1730s, Yisra’el ben Eliezer began calling himself a Ba’al Shem or Ba’al Shem Tov; interchangeable terms meaning that he was a “master of God’s good name,” which he could use for healing and theurgic purposes.
Ba’al Shem Tov, in its abbreviated form, Besht, became the title, and even the name, used by most people who knew of him.
The Besht was best known denoting his skills as a healer—one Polish source refers to him as a Ba’al Shem doctor—and his general qualifications as a figure who could mediate between this world and the divine spheres in an effort to help people solve their health, financial, and social problems.
The Besht had a charismatic personality, great self-confidence, a sense of humor, a clever intellect, and the conviction that he had a key role to play as a leader of the people of Israel, working for their redemption and that of the Shekhinah (the divine presence).
The Besht began to attract disciples in the 1740’s. Many of these men were Rabbis or Yeshivah students who were discontented with the cold, arid, ridged atmosphere of most Yeshivot.
The Besht’s attraction to disgruntled Yeshivah Jews, and even to those already studying Kabbalah theory, was that he had instituted many reforms within traditional, mystical, ascetic Hasidism.
These reforms paved the way for its transformation, primarily following his death, from an elitist asceticism to a popular spiritualism, and even more important, from a collection of small religious fellowships to a mass movement that would revitalize Orthodox Jewish life.
Perhaps most important among these reforms was the Ba’al Shem Tov’s insistence that the path to communion with God lay not in years of full time study of Talmudic texts or in suffering frequent acts of asceticism, but in singing, dancing and the joy of emotional prayer.
If prayer was the key element of sacred activity, then intellectual academic study was not required. Learning, piety and wisdom could better be achieved through being inspired by listening to Midrash Aggadah and tales of miraculous events and stories of saintly men and women.
Indeed, for two to three generations after the Besht’s death no Hassidic Tsadik maintained a Yeshivah. Later that all changed.
In addition, the example of the Besht’s taking both material and spiritual responsibility for his extended family, disciples and household set an important precedent for the development of the later Hasidic court centered on the figure of the Tsadik. The following Hassidic story illustrates both of these themes.
The Baal Shem Tov was not a great Talmud scholar illui, but he was a lover of the common people and a very kind soul. Rabbi Shmuel Arieh, who once lived in a village where the Baal Shem Tov had worked as a shohet (slaughter) before his greatness was revealed, related this story: “I met an 80 year old shohet in that village and I asked him if he had ever met a Jew who had actually met Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov. The shohet answered that he had never met a Jew who had met the Baal Shem Tov, but he had met a Gentile who not only met Rabbi Israel but also recognized him.
I questioned how a Gentile could possibly recognize a Jewish holy man, who had not yet revealed himself even to Jews; and this was the shochet’s answer. “When I was a young man I used to lodge with a Gentile farmer. Whenever I would pour water on a stone to sharpen my slaughtering knife, the farmer’s grandmother, an old lady of 90 or so, would shake her head. I used to think this was due to her old age. One time I sensed she was doing it out of disapproval; so I asked her why do you shake your head while I work?
She answered me, “You do not go about your task in a nice way. That nice young man Israel, before he sharpened his knife on a stone, he would wet the stone with his tears.”
One of the most important teachings of Hassidic Rabbis was not to worry about the future, or sacrifice present joy because you fear it will not last very long. After all, most things people worry about never occur. As Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about being (always) worried.”
One of the reasons many Jews worried was because most rabbis blamed the low level of Jewish piety for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Portugal and Spain. Instead of praising Jews for how many Mitsvot they did, most rabbis were always complaining about how they never did enough. They never told the story of the two frogs that the Besht first heard in 1740 when he stayed for several months in Istanbul.
A group of frogs were traveling when two of them fell into a deep pit. All the other frogs gathered around the pit and when they saw how deep the pit was, they told the two fallen frogs they would never get out. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit. The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to what the other frogs were saying and gave up. He lay down and died.
The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again, the crowd of frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and suffering and just die. He jumped even harder and finally made it out. When he got out, the frogs asked him, “Why did you continue jumping. Didn’t you hear us?” The frog explained to them that he was partially deaf; and he thought they were encouraging him the whole time.
So an encouraging word to someone who is down can lift them up and help them make it through the day. And a destructive word to someone who is down can be what it takes to kill him or her.
As the Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “Always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.” He also taught, “Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”
In today’s world of fanaticism and extremism the words of Rabbi Nachman, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, should be continually repeated by all teachers of true religious devotion, “Never insist that everything go exactly your way, even in matters spiritual.” Even saints can be overly righteous and thus have their shortcomings.
Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin died in a most tragic manner. A Cossack shot him in the leg while he was saying the Shabbat morning prayers. His disciple Rabbi Asher wanted the bullet removed right away but Rabbi Shlomo refused. He said he would wait until after Shabbat was over, arguing ‘should we forget God the creator of the universe for such a small thing?”
After Shabbat was over they went to a doctor but by then the leg was infected, The infection spread and five days later Rabbi Shlomo died. He was 56. Perhaps with this in mind Rabbi Mikhal of Zlotchov said: “When the Evil Urge tries to tempt people to sin, it tempts them to become super righteous.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk once replied to a hassid who reported that a man who had recently come to town, was a miracle worker, by saying that producing miracles was not that difficult. The real challenge is to produce people who can see and believe in miracles; and Rabbis who can see beyond the narrow confines of the law into the hearts of their people. This quality should always define good Jewish leaders.
Finally, a Neo-Hasidic American Rabbi of our generation, Rabbi Rami Shapiro teaches, “Aren’t all religions equally true? No, all religions are equally false. The relationship of religion to Truth is like that of a menu to a meal. The menu describes the meal as best it can. It points to something beyond itself. Without the menu we cannot order a meal. When we mistake the menu for the meal, we do it and ourselves a grave injustice.”