Chevruta – The Learning Partner

Night after night, while the village of Okup slept peacefully, Yisraelic and the Reb Moshe sat in the little synagogue by candlelight, learning Torah together...

7 min

Rabbi Tzvi Meir Cohn

Posted on 27.04.23

“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, Part 11

In the last installment, our still young Yisraelic while working as the shamash (custodian) in a little synagogue in the holy community of Okup, was discoverd by Reb Moshe, the son of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem. Reb Moshe found him secretly studing Zohar and gave him a page of his father's holy book.When he saw the intensity in which Yisraelic started reading the page, he knew at once that he had found the person he was searching for.
Before leaving this world, Reb Moshe's father had given him all his secret, mystic writings and sent him to the village of Okup to find someone who was a secret mystic, so that no one else knew about him. And to that person, Moshe was to give the holy writings. At last, Moshe had discovered that while Yisraelic was an ordinary shule custodian in the daytime, cleaning the synagogue and taking care of it, after midnight the boy awoke to study the Zohar (the Book of Splendor) in secret.

Now, as they stood alone in the little synagogue of Okup, about an hour after midnight, Moshe explained to the boy why he had come to Okup.

"Very well," said Yisraelic, "I'll study these secret holy works with you on one condition. That is, as far as anyone knows, I am still only the shamash who takes care of the synagogue. Not even your wife and her family are to know anything more about me."
"I agree," said Reb Moshe, "so be it. We shall be studying together for a long time. My father sent me not only to give you his secret writings but to teach them to you until you know them. Also, he instructed me to teach you many difficult pages in the Zohar."
Yisraelic felt a great happiness. He remembered the promise he read in the Zohar that when a person studied Torah at night, Heaven made sure that he was treated with kindness. And how much better it would be to study with an older person who could explain what he didn't understand and who could answer all his questions.
"Come, my friend," said Moshe again, "let us sit down and learn these writings together."
Suddenly, Yisrael was filled with bashfulness and started to blush. He was still a young boy, and this was a grown man. How could Reb Moshe call him "my friend" and say that they were to study the holy writings together, as two equals? "This is the son of one of the most famous Jews in Poland," thought Yisrael, "and his wife's father is one of the richest men in Okup. How could I ever be his friend?"

"I know what you are thinking," said Reb Moshe gently. "There is no need for you to worry. Let me tell you about two friends among the group of learned people in the Zohar."

At once Yisrael forgot his worry. The stories in the Zohar always enchanted him, and he was eager to hear this story. In other stories from the Zohar, he always found a kind of mirror, in which he saw things about his own life and future.

So Reb Moshe began with the following: Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Isaac were once walking along the road from Meron to Sepphoris, and with them was a boy driving a donkey laden with leather sacks filled with honey. Rabbi Judah said, "Let us talk of something in the Torah as we walk."

Rabbi Isaac then began: "In the Song of Songs, the Bible speaks of the good wine. This means the wine of Torah. When a person learns Torah, it is like drinking wine which is good for everything: good for life in this world and good for life in the world-to-come."

At that, the boy driving the donkey spoke up: "If it were written 'from the good wine, I would agree with you. But 'the good wine' is written."
"Well spoken, my son," said Rabbi Judah. "So tell us what you think it means."
The boy replied, " I heard that it is 'the good wine' when a person busies himself with the Torah and clings to it to the extent that words of Torah are heard from his mouth because it is necessary to learn Torah aloud. He does not whisper the words but speaks them out loud in the manner that wine will inspire a man to stop being still and to raise his voice."
The two rabbis were delighted with the boy's explanation and kissed him on the head. "What is your name?" they asked.

"Jesse," he replied.

"Someday you will be Rabbi Jesse," they told him, "and you will be greater than our dear friend Rabbi Jesse who was taken from us by death. Who was your father?" they asked.

"He already left this world," said the boy. "I really miss him. Every day he taught me three lessons of wisdom from the stories of the Torah. Now I live with a man who has taken me away from my learning. Every day I must go to work, but I still review all that I learned from my father."

After hearing this story from the Zohar that Reb Moshe told, Yisraelic burst into tears, overwhelmed by his feelings. Jesse, the boy driving the donkey, had been an orphan – and so was he. Jesse had studied again every day all that his father had taught him. Yisraelic remembered every day what his father had taught him, when he was a child of five: "I imagine the L-rd before me always." It became the rule of his life, always to believe and feel that the Almighty was right there before him. And just as the two aged rabbis had told the boy that some day he would be called Rabbi Jesse, Israelic hoped that someday he would be called Rabbi.

"Wasn't it amazing, Yisrael thought, that the two rabbis let the boy speak, listened to his words, and loved what he said. How different that was from the way that the men of Okup acted to him. They already had their minds strongly made up and didn't care what he or any child might say.
From this story he learned that the great sages in the Zohar knew that when a young boy studied Torah, there was a spirit in him which could say wise thoughts, and they listened to him. They included the boy Jesse in their conversation and their studies.
Yisrael hardly realized that tears of strong feeling were falling down his cheeks, till Moshe wiped them away and patted him on the shoulder. "There," said Moshe; "do you see? Jesse was also an orphan boy, just like you."
It suddenly occurred to Yisrael that the story was not finished. He wanted to know what else happened with the boy Jesse. (But he knew he would no longer worry or feel bashful about studying with Moshe the young man as a friend.) Moshe continued telling the story from the Zohar:

"Now," said the two sages to Jesse, "this man with whom you live – does he know how to learn any Torah?"

"Oh no," said Jesse. "He is an old man, yet he does not even know how to say a blessing for food or to pray to G-d. He has children, but he never even sent them to a Torah school."
Then Rabbi Judah said, "If that were not the the case, l would go to his village to ask him if you might come and live with us. But now I see that we are not even allowed to see his face, because he is wicked. Just let the donkey return home by itself and come with us. But who really was your father?"
"Rabbi Ze'ira of Kfar Shemin," the lad replied.
Hearing that, Rabbi Judah wept. "I was in his house once," he said, "and I learned three matters of Jewish law and two things about the creation of the world."
"What is so surprising about that?" asked Rabbi Isaac. "If we learned something from his young son, the boy, we could surely learn much from the father himself."
So they went on, holding the boy by the hand, till they saw a meadow, where they decided to sit and rest. "Tell us," they asked the boy, "something of what you learned from your father about the creation of the world."
He began, "When the Bible says, 'and every winged bird after its kind" (Genesis 1:21), it means the holy angels who are ready to declare G-d's name holy. Every day, each of the angels gets six wings, whereupon some of them fly through the world to carry out the will of their Maker, the Almighty, each in his own special way."
At that Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Isaac arose and kissed the boy on his head. And from that day on, Jesse never separated from Rabbi Judah. Afterward, whenever this boy Jesse entered the beth midrash (house of study), Rabbi Judah would get up before him. "I learned something of the Torah from him," the sage would explain, "and I must treat him with respect."
In time Jesse rose to importance and high standing among the group of students in the house of study, and he came to be called Rabbi Jesse.
As Yisrael sat lost in thought about the story, Reb Moshe waited a few moments in silence. Then he opened the first packet of his father's writings. "Come, my friend," he said once more, "let us study together." The hours went by as they learned the holy writings of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem about the creation of the world.
Then they came to something that was very hard for Yisraelic to understand. Again and again Reb Moshe tried to explain it, but still the boy could not fathom it.
"What shall we do?" asked Yisrael, downcast. "Is there anyone we can ask? How can we find someone to come and explain it to me?"
"Never you worry," said Moshe. "We will just go on learning more and more, till we know a great deal about the holy angels. When we know the name of every angel in heaven, we can use the holy names and words that we know to make the great angel in charge of the Torah come to us; and he himself, the heavenly prince of the Torah, will make everything clear that you do not understand."

"Yes!" exclaimed the boy. "That is what we'll do"; and his face shone with happiness. "With our holy words we'll make the angel of the Torah come and study with us!" He remembered reading in the Hebrew Bible that when an angel came and told Manoah's wife about the boy Samson who would be born to her. Manoah wanted to know more from the angel, and he prayed until the angel appeared again. With their holy word's they would pray in the same way. And then, he thought, the angel of the Torah would surely be happy to learn the holy writings with him and explain everything, just as Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Isaac were happy to learn Torah with Jesse the orphan.

Night after night, while the village of Okup slept peacefully, Yisraelic and the Reb Moshe sat in the little synagogue by candlelight, studying the holy names and ways of the angels in heaven.

Finally, Reb Moshe decided it was time to try and bring down the angel called the Prince of the Torah.
To be continued next week, G-d willing…
Tzvi Meir Cohn attended Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after completing his university studies in Engineering and Law. While studying at the Yeshiva, he discovered a deep connection to the stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. His many books about the Baal Shem Tov can be found in the Breslev Store. He can be contacted at