The Ba’al Shem Tov and Me

Written by Rain Zohav,July 18, 2007

For the class: The spiritual vision of the Ba’al Shem Tov

Taught by Rabbi Burt Jacobson


It was a time of great despair in the Jewish community, only a few years after the Holocaust. Teachers in my Sunday school could barely bring themselves to mention G-d. And then, one day a teacher told a story about the Ba’al Shem Tov. A story about a young boy, too young and too ignorant to know how to pray, but whose blast on a shepherd’s pipe raised the whole congregations’ prayers to heaven.

“It was as if Providence had proclaimed, ‘Let there be light!’ And there was light – in the form of an individual: Reb Israel, son of Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov, ‘Master of the Good name’, often known by the acronym of his initials, Besht, or as the holy Baal Shem.” (Heschel, 3).

Two different times, similar need. Others have noted the difficulty of Jewish spirituality in post-holocaust times. Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi references this via Reb Shlomo Carlebach quoting the Ishbitzer Rebbe, noting that “for many Jews after the Holocaust, the path via Judaism was blocked” (31). It might have become blocked for me also, without the stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Similarly, the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov was about 50 years after the Khemielnitski massacres and the disillusion with Shabbatai Zevi. I agree with Reb Jacobson that, “…traumatic suffering is held in the body and the collective unconscious, and is handed down from generation to generation” (81).

It may even be that having achieved some material well being after terrible suffering and trauma allows for spiritual needs to become more manifest. This would fit in with Maslow’s theory of a hierarchy of needs. Many agree that the Jewish people were in great spiritual need at the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Reb Pinhas of Koretz says, “The Jewish people had fainted because of their suffering in exile, and the Ba’al Shem Tov came and revived them.” (Jacobson, 13). Heschel writes that, “It was a time when the Jewish imagination was nearly exhausted. The mind had reached an impasse, thinking about impossible possibilities in Talmudic law. The heart was troubled by oppressive social and economic conditions, as well as the teachings of ascetic preachers.” (3). And Eli Wiesel writes of the Ba’al Shem Tov that, “He had been the spark without which thousands of families would have succumbed to gloom and hopelessness.” (27, Souls on Fire).

I would suggest that a similar gloom, with a “materialistic anthropocentrism” (Jacobson, 92) afflicts our general Jewish communities today. Buber, Heschel and Shachter- Shalomi all felt the need to make Hasidic teaching available in our modern times to address this crisis of faith and meaning. As I studied the texts of the Ten Tenets, I also found a “powerful current of redemptive hope” (Jacobson, 13).

My journey with the Ba’al Shem Tov began early and continues. My initial exposure to the Ba’al Shem Tov concerned coming close to G-d through the heart and through seeing G-d in nature. These initial teachings gave me a feeling of hope. I found also found much hope in the teachings we studied in this course. There is a very hopeful message in the first of the Ten Tenets that we studied. Beginning with the phrase: “L’chen ha’mabit v’roeh b’eyin sechli” – therefore, he who looks with a mindful eye – and “ha’shomeah b’oznei k’shovot l’kol ha’p’nimi,” – the listener who listens attentively to the inner voice –  will really hear the voice of G-d. To me this means that if I really am attentive, I will be close to G-d. It is similar to the teaching by Heschel relayed via Reb. Jacobson, “…why is God so hidden? ‘He is not hidden, said the Baal Shem Tov; He is hiding. He is very near, hiding behind veils and screens.’” (32). This closeness to G-d has the possibility of impacting my life and work as a rabbi with a sense of reverence.

Another hopeful message from our reading comes from Tenet 7, “v’lo ha’tanit v’ha’segugim” – “and not from fasting and self-affliction” – will come closeness to G-d. This is also referred to in Dressner’s book, The Zaddik as one of the basic tenets of Hasidism revealed to Rabbi Yaakov Yosef by the Ba’al Shem Tov (p.47). He illuminates this through the example of the letter the Ba’al Shem Tov writes to Rabbi Yaakov Yosef regarding fasting, “I order you not to bring yourself into this danger, for this way is dark and bitter and leads to depression and melancholy. The glory of God does not dwell where there is depression…” (51).

Although we no longer fast and scourge ourselves physically as in the times before the Ba’al Shem Tov (Heschel, 25) the idea remains that mental self-affliction is beneficial to the soul. However, I have found that the less patient and gentle I am with myself, the less patient and gentle I am with others. If I could integrate this teaching of Tenet seven into not only my thought, but also into my life, I believe it would help me tremendously with being gentle and patient to all I encounter, including in my work as a rabbi.

The teaching begins with the advice that the person must awaken his heart to

his own service of G-d, in order to passionately cling to the Source of life and goodness. Contained in these few words are several important concepts. The concept of awakening the heart is often called “hitlahavut”, and is described by Heschel like this: “…a zest for spiritual living, which literally means ‘being aflame’ – the experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for G-d” ( Heschel, 47-48). Dresner describes it like this: “The duties of ‘Torah study and prayer’ have to be fulfilled, ‘but above all else is the yearning, the spark of flame which sets fire to hitlahvut – the craving, the longing for His love’” (35). This idea remains a somewhat abstract concept for me. Mostly I have some longing and yes – occasional moments of joy.

The idea that each person has a very special task that he was born to fulfill does resonate for me. This is part of the very affirmative approach of Hasidism to all. Heschel says, “The finer qualities of simple people were often valued and praised by the Ba’al Shem Tov and other tzaddikim” (68). The Ba’al Shem Tov, “… knew that one could be a scholar and a scoundrel and that the lowly man could perform an action that justified the existence of the whole world” ( 67-68). An extreme example of this is the assertion by Heschel that, “The merit of a drunken Jew, who resisted temptation and then, for instance, released others from jail, surpassed that of a haughty scholar” (43). Eli Wiesel writes, “In the Besht’s universe, no one felt left out” (19). The way he accomplished this was not by mere rhetoric, but rather, “He gave of himself generously and without reservation to all who needed him…every human being deserved his attention” (19).

Reb Zalman brings this teaching achingly into the present when he writes, “What is the sacrifice now, if it isn’t words? Now it is time and energy. The rich can’t give any more than the poor where time and energy are concerned.” (Wrapped in Holy Flame, 21). Although I often feel guilty that I don’t give enough of my time and energy to others, I believe that my family, friends, colleagues and congregation would loudly disagree.

My father’s socialist teachings echo these teachings. He always taught that all honest work is honorable and that even the most seemingly simple manual task could be done in a better way and that perhaps the very laborer we were seeing was thinking up that better way right now. I believe that I have internalized that lesson very thoroughly in my own life. Perhaps it is one of the reasons that the teachings of Hasidut seem so compatible with my basic values. Because of this value of my father’s and the modeling on my mother’s part of a deep respect for all, I have been blessed with many friendships with people who do manual labor and live on the edge of poverty. As a rabbi with a focus on Tikkun Olam, I hope to bring this deep respect into any work that I do.

One other gem in this teaching is to cling passionately to the Source of Life and Goodness. I interpret this to mean that by putting my attention on life and the goodness of life, I not only come closer to the transcendent G-d, but to the godliness in each human being I encounter. I find that when I do put my attention on the goodness of life, I am more calm – surely a boon to all around me. This could be an important way to stay grounded as a rabbi who may be dealing with many difficulties.

Thinking about these concepts together:  that self flagellation is not helpful and that clinging to the Source of Life and Goodness is helpful, I am reminded of an insight we discussed in my chevruta. This is the acknowledgment that when we are too absorbed in self critical thoughts, our attention is actually not on G-d, but on ourselves. Therefore, both the negative “commandment” and the positive “commandment” work hand in hand to keep us awake to our “avodah”, our service to G-d.

As we learned in class, the collateral texts about the gift of human potential expand the concept of how we are to approach doing our work in the world. On the one hand, we should not be too humble, as that creates distance from G-d. The essential teaching of this passage is that we must have an accurate picture of ourselves – we can’t possibly nurture G-d and the angels if we are over-humble. Dresner writes, “Too much humility can sometimes weaken a man and make him lose confidence in himself” (225-226). If I let this teaching sink in, it gives me more confidence to pursue this rabbinic studies path that I have embarked on. Text 2 balances out the inclination to think that if we do a mitzvah or have great Torah learning and wonderful prayer that is full of kavanah, that we do this on our own, somehow without the help of G-d.

Perhaps this is the place to discuss the idea of a new kind of spiritual leader, or rebbe – called a Zaddik. Reb Burt Jacobson writes, “When I first read Dresner’s book (the Zaddik) in my senior year at Seminary, I felt that it was an extremely important book for rabbinical students and rabbis to study. I still feel this way. The zaddik, as depicted by R. Ya’kov Yosef, offers a model of spiritual leadership that is essential to the formation of spiritual leadership and community today” (68). I find that the whole notion of considering ourselves to be zaddikim problematic. I was much relieved to read in Reb Zalman’s book the same sentiment. He writes, “How do we dare to apply the word Tzaddik to ourselves?” (11) He goes on however to embrace the idea that most of us, even including Reb Shnuer Zalman and Rav of Talmudic times are actually Beynoni “in-betweeners” (11): “we are people who are not altogether wicked” (12). If we look upon the Rebbe as resulting from the Divine flow that works through a community, “that in a sense makes for itself a Rebbe”, we are on firmer ground. “It is not that we elevate ourselves to sainthood or raise ourselves above others, rather, we are asked by the community to be their Rebbe because they see in us something they need.” (12).

Since over the years, at least a minyan’s worth of people have said I should be a rabbi, ( including my own Rabbi) or have said they consider me their rabbi, I can with this perspective look more closely at the teachings presented in The Zaddik. Following Reb Jacobson’s organization of Ya’akov Yosef’s teachings, “based on his observation of the Besht”, we have three categories; “The Zaddik’s relatiohship with Himself”, “The Zaddik’s Relation with God”, and “The Zaddik’s Relationship with the People”. I can totally relate to the teachings regarding the necessity of humility on the part of a rabbi. Not only in the time of the Ba’al Shem Tov, but right up to the present, many rabbis are extremely arrogant. My own rabbi, at the congregation where I work, says that he can’t stand to be in a room full of his colleagues due to the “overweening egoism and arrogance” of so many contemporary rabbis.

Ya’akov Yosef’s teaching to curb this arrogance is that the zaddik “…must understand that the sin he sees in others is in himself as well.” (Dresner, 193). Dresner writes that “Knowledge alone, when unbounded by humility, can easily lead to pride.” (93) Therefore, it is important to learn from others. That the basic categories overlap is seen by this teaching, “For the man who hears only his own voice, and never the voice of others, shuts himself off not only from his fellow man but from the Lord as well. The word of God is lost in the din of his own words” (Dresner, 94). As I learn more, my direction for myself is to share this learning as widely as possible and to never use it to boost my own ego towards arrogance.

Considering the zaddik’s relationship with G-d, I found Reb Jacobson’s idea of the Ba’al Shem Tov and by extension the zaddik as a shaman to be very intriguing. The Hasidic idea of the zaddik standing as a channel between heaven and earth was the most difficult for me to relate to personally. However, viewing this as a shamanistic behavior actually gives me more context. Although this is not the direction I see myself going in as a rabbi, I would certainly not hesitate to pray deeply for someone for whom this would be meaningful, or to investigate ways to open the flow of Divine energy.

The most intriguing aspect of this new form of spiritual leadership, for me lies in the area of the relationship of the zaddik with the People. This includes the aspect of building community. As Dresner writes, “The zaddik knew the ‘situation’ of the people: felt their sorrow, their fears, their sufferings; understood their question, their doubts, their ambitions. And it was to this ‘situation’ that he spoke” (189). I certainly hope to obtain this understanding and to speak to people out of love and compassion. I think it is possible that “in a spell of self-righteous anger or an outburst of uncontrollable rage,” I might  “condemn the people unjustly” (Dresner, 232). Dresner poses the question, “What then is he to do?” and answers “…chastise out of love” (232). This is something I am working on, especially regarding the American Jewish community’s often unquestioning support of all Israeli government policies. It is hopeful to me that such committed people have thought of these hard questions and given practical answers.

The overarching message of hope continues with Text 2 in the Coming to G-d section of our collateral texts. The phrase, “col asher timtzeh yadecha l’asot b’coacha aseh: everything your hand finds to do is within your strength to do” is enormously encouraging to me. Often I take on pretty difficult tasks. One of my most moving experiences was in the midst of taking on a very difficult task regarding the possibility of taking into our home the very ill mother of our foster children. During that period of time, I felt a strength pouring into me from somewhere that was outside of me. I felt that this strength was coming from G-d.

I also appreciate the balance of the Hasidic teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov to counteract my tendency to discount tasks that seem easy. In Tenet 6 we learn that, “col ha’naseh b’olam, afilu dvar kal sh’bkalim” – “everything in the world, even the easiest of the easy things” is from G-d. And therefore, it is not for the person to inspect whether this is G-d’s will or not G-d’s will. Integrating this teaching into my thoughts and life would lead to a more centered and realistic perspective. It also leads to appreciation of other’s “easy”, or simple work coming from G-d and thus will hopefully reinforce the deep respect I hope to bring to all in my rabbinic work.

The importance of the inner, hidden life is emphasized by the Ba’al Shem Tov. We can see this clearly in Tenet 9, which advises that even when a person is praying about something that is urgent to him and has a feeling of sorrow due to a lack in his life, he should still put his intention on the Godly life, which is hidden within him and therefore ask from Hashem to have compassion on the hidden life that is within him, “l’rachem al chayot ha’mastir bo.” In A Passion for Truth, Heschel writes of the Hasidim,

“Their first premise has been that what one thinks while acting determines the quality of religious life. This assertion- that what goes on in one’s inner life is of decisive importance- came as a shock to the stalwart guardians of tradition. Had they not always taught that the essence of Jewish living was in the doing?” (42) Although I hardly think of myself as a stalwart guardian of tradition, I find myself in some sympathy with the idea that right action is essential regardless of inner intention.

From a very pragmatic point of view, I don’t really care if for instance, a politician makes a decision to protect the environment because it is the only way he or she can get re-elected, or because they really understand and care about the earth. Similarly, Dresner makes the point that “The study of Torah should be lishmah, for its own sake, and not for the sake of one’s pride, that is for ulterior motives. This principle does not strictly apply to the common people, who must at all costs be encouraged to study, even if it be for ulterior motives” (93).

However, in my own life, I usually try to have my inner and outer life in alignment. I try to cultivate the correct inner life, but I will accept from myself right action with inner resentment, over inaction. My quintessential example of this is one time, many years ago, when I called a friend to invite to take her out to lunch and to the Jewish bookstore. I knew she was having a pretty difficult time having moved in with her elderly mother to take care of her. My friend however, said that she would much prefer a home cooked meal at my house. I agreed, but with a fair amount of resentment. I was just recovering from bronchitis and did not have much energy to cook.

As I went about cooking a special and delicious dinner for my friend, I was pretty grumpy. She came to dinner and we had a good time, although she did mention some troubling health issues. I think I gave her the name of a doctor. Then we went on vacation. When we returned two weeks later, we learned that my dear friend had died suddenly of a brain aneurism shortly after her dinner with us. I was so glad that I had made that dinner for her! And even in this gladness, there is not the pure inner motive I would with for. Part of the gladness is the relief from not having to feel guilty for the rest of my life if I hadn’t risen to her request. So, while I also do not like for instance, empty prayer, I believe that through the doing, one often gets to the kavanah also.

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s great love for every Jew is expressed well in Tenet 8, “Each person is a complete spiritual Torah if he walks in G-d’s ways.” This is an example of what Heschel describes as, “The Baal Shem Tov’s power of love, his feeling for the divine worth of each individual, his concern for the ordinary cares of common folk, as if all were his equals…” (p.28). I think it also exemplifies the idea expressed by Martin Buber in Hasidism and Modern Man, that “You cannot really love God if you do not love men, and you cannot really love men if you do not love God.” (225).

This central concept of love is one that I try to put into practice in my own life. Currently, I am trying to love the other drivers on the roads of my congested Washington DC area. When they cut me off from a lane, for instance, I try to remember the terrible pressure even professional working people are under in this part of the world. I must admit, I only succeed intermittently. In Hasidism, the case study, so to speak, of one’s relationship with humans, including oneself, is extended to include all of Creation. From human beings we can move to the entire universe.

The world view of Hasidism, as taught by the Ba’al Shem Tov, concerning the nature of reality, is that all comes from G-d and all is essentially good. The Ten Tenets we studied in class begin and end with this overarching concept. The first tenet is unequivocal on this point, “There is nothing in the whole Torah or in the whole world that doesn’t have hidden within it the infinite light of G-d.” As a proof text we are offered this text from Torah, “et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz ani malei – ain od m’lvado, I have filled the heavens and the earth – there is nothing else”. Dessner offers a very similar text, “…the whole world is filled with His glory” (46), as an essential conviction of the Ba’al Shem Tov, transmitted to Rabbi Yakov Yosef, or we can see the same idea in this quote from Isaiah 6 offered by Reb Jacobson, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s luminous presence” (91). This view of the world is very close to my own belief. I see G-d as being embedded in the whole of creation, as being the creative force in the universe.

Tenet 4, “There is no evil that comes down from heaven because there is no source for it” – “ain ra yored min hashamayim ci ain makor lo”, is a logical extension of this belief. Many things which look evil to human eyes have within them a good, or simply a natural purpose. Events such as earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters are analogous to our collateral text 2 on the divinity of evil, with evil being compared to night. Just as day and night are necessary, these natural events are necessary. Heschel expresses this same idea beautifully when he writes, “even in the densest darkness one could see the flicker of a spark, for a ray of the Holy was at the core of all that was. It was a man’s task to redeem the hidden radiance, the divine kernels sealed in their husks. Since the Divine was everywhere, one might easily experience the radiance of the Holy at any place at any moment. ‘There is nothing that does not contain a glint of holiness, for without it nothing could possible exist’” (25). He goes on to say, “The Baal Shem Tov was enraptured that evil concealed a seed of the good…” (40). I find this idea both challenging and intriguing. I think that looking for the possible good in everything could lead me to a more positive, proactive kind of life.

For instance, in grappling with disasters such as the recent tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, I would say that sometimes these disasters can serve to awaken us to how much work still needs to be done in the world. In the case of the Tsunami, world attention is now on devising early warning systems for that part of the world, where none existed before. In the case of Katrina – anyone who thought that we had conquered racism and prejudice against poor people in this country has had to look the hard truth in the face of how much further we have yet to go. Perhaps also, environmentalists’ warnings of other impending disasters will be taken more seriously.

The Ba’al Shem Tov even goes so far as to find a use for the “yetzer ha’ra”. In the third tenet, he posits that the yetzer hara and the passions are actually “messengers from G-d  – shlochei Hamkom – that do the will of their Sender – to seduce the human in order that he may overcome them and from them learn to become strong like them”. I really liked this teaching, as I found in it much hope. At Kallah, I even had a dream that I was very frustrated with a situation (of being boxed into a bathroom by a bicycle) and instead of getting really mad, I grasped the side of the bathroom sink and said to myself, “Be as persistent in overcoming your temper as the yezter harah is persistent”. So I believe that I am beginning to integrate this teaching into my thoughts and hopefully my actions.

Perhaps the hardest place to see the Divine is in suffering. Our collateral text 1 on the Divinity of suffering addresses this issue and affirms that there is the hidden presence of G-d even in the midst of both physical and spiritual suffering. Rabbi Burt’s explanation of the three part process of dealing with suffering – “hachna’a – acceptance”, “havdalah – discernment” and “ha’m’tekah – sweeten” was a springboard for much inspiring insights in our chevruta, class and continuing in the class on suffering (theodicy) at Smicha week. As we know from Kubler-Ross’s work, acceptance is a crucial part of healing or dealing with loss, but not usually the first step.

So as a rabbi, I will need to be able to listen compassionately to folks in the midst of other reactions in order to allow them to reach this stage. The question of discernment – of finding out where G-d is in the darkness is a very deep question. Some possible answers are that G-d is manifest in our friends and loved ones, or even strangers helping us bear the suffering. I do believe that we can distinguish between pain on the one hand and suffering on the other. It is very easy for many to believe themselves abandoned by both G-d and humans in the midst of suffering and to further isolate themselves both from prayer and from reaching out to humans. This causes needless suffering. If we acknowledge that all comes from G-d, including all natural processes and sometimes logical consequences  of our actions, then it may be possible to see that holiness does not only reside in joy.

In my theodicy class a fellow student shared this story. She was going through a painful time in her life and had lined up all kinds of friends to support her through it. But one particularly bad evening, while she was taking a walk in her neighborhood, she tried to call her best friends. No one was home. She tried her second tier of friends. Still no one was available. All of a sudden she had a thought of calling up G-d. At that moment, she heard a voice inside her head say, “So this would be so bad?” She laughed and began to talk to G-d with her cell phone to her ear. She found much comfort in these conversations which continued through this difficult time. I think as a rabbi, this would be a good story to tell a person who had a belief in G-d, but was feeling very estranged from G-d due to a painful situation. It might also be a good story to tell generally, when people are not in the midst of pain that they can file away for later.

Our Ten Tenets come full circle with the last Tenet again affirming that there isn’t even one thing that isn’t being watched over from above in all the detail and “hacol na’asah b’cavanah miyuhedet – and everything is done with a special intent”. This is perhaps the tenet I have the most difficulty with. I don’t really believe that there is a person-like G-d who “watches over us” in any literal kind of sense. I can understand that many people need to believe that everything is done for a specific good reason, but I actually have no trouble with the concept of randomness. In my conception of G-d as the sum total of the creative energy in the universe, some of which is random for the individual involved, I find comfort. I do not believe that every person who gets cancer is being punished, for example, but rather that cancer exists and that death is a necessary part of life. I do believe that it is possible that there are reasons for things happening that are way beyond our puny human ability to understand. I think, as a rabbi, I will need to be very attentive to where folks who may come to me for advice or comfort are at in their own struggles with these difficult issues. Too facile an answer about “it all being for the good” could send someone running in the other direction.

A basic principle of the Ba’al Shem Tov that is not really elucidated in the ten tenets is very important to me already. This is the principle of joy. I agree with Reb Jacobson that “…more than anything, it was his teaching on joy that made the Besht into the seminal leader whose key insight brought about the transformation of Jewish consciousness in Poland before the end of the 18th century” (83).  I would add that this teaching has the potential to bring about a renewal of Judaism in our day also. All of our authors stressed that the Hasidic way of teaching is not only through words, but also through the action of the rebbe. Hence it is crucial that the Ba’al Shem Tov “modeled and taught what it was to be a joyous person” (Jacobson, 83). I once found myself trying to explain my school’s philosophy to a prospective family. Without consciously thinking I said, “We try to teach the joy of Judaism”.

The goal of Renewal Judiasm, to bring some of this joy and sense of community into modern Judaism by modeling it is one of the things I find most attractive about Renewal Judaism. I think we are reaching for something like what Buber describes in this as, “the fact that common reverence and common joy of the soul are the foundations of genuine human community” (Hasidism and Modern Man, 45). Similarly, Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kallah, felt to me like a true community of modern day hassidim. Thankfully, we are more equalitarian and non-sexist; the women did not have to peer through a narrow upper window, but could act as full participants, including being a shaliach tzibur.

In conclusion, I find that there is much to be said for integrating many of the key Hasidic teaching into my life and into my future practice as a rabbi. Cultivating an attitude of reverence and gratitude, continuing to study and expand my daily prayer practice with full kavannah, approaching people with the utmost respect and compassion, and especially doing all of the above with joy, has the potential to aid my growth into the kind of rabbi that I wish to become.

Works Cited


Buber, Martin. Hasidism and Modern Man. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000.

Dresner, Samuel H. The Zaddik. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1994.

Heschel, Abraham J. A Passion for Truth. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1995.

Jacobson, Burt, and Richard Stone. “To Live in the Presence: An Interpretation of the Life, Personality and Teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.” Precis, Version 3. 2007.

Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Zalman. Wrapped in a Holy Flame: Teachings and Tales of the Hasidic Masters. Nataniel M. Miles-Yepez, ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003.

Wiesel, Elie. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters. Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Touchstone, 1993.