“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, Part 13
In the last episode, Reb Moshe, the son of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem, left the world, and Yisrael (later known as the Baal Shem Tov), was left alone to continue on his path through life.
In the summer of the year 1733, two brothers Yitzhak Dov and Meir, beloved sons of the Rabbi of Yozlovitz, came to study Torah for a few weeks with the Baal Shem Tov. At that time, the Baal Shem Tov, then known as Yisroeli, lived In a small village near the holy community of Kitov. Yisroeli had leased a distillery and tavern, which his wife Channah managed, while he went off to be alone among the mountains to study Torah and pray.
Their business, however, was not particularly successful and they could not earn enough to live on.
Yisroeli decided to devote a few hours a day to digging and cutting mounds of loam and clay. Then Channah would hire a horse and wagon and once or twice a week, they would both load the loam and clay on the wagon; and she could then take it into Kitov and sell it there.
For some time, all went well. But then the wagon collapsed going down a high hill and the horse was badly injured and died later that very day.
Yisroeli was now laden with debt and he had to pay for the horse and the collapsed wagon.
In a nearby village lived a wealthy Jewish distiller and tavern-keeper who also owned a large flock of sheep. This tavern-keeper came from the city of Brody, and he knew Rabbi Gershon Kitover, Yisrael's brother-in- law. Beset by the disaster with the horse, Yisroeli went to this tavern-keeper and asked to be given charge of the sheep and to be their shepherd. Working as a shepherd of the flock out on the hills, he could continue his worship of G-d all alone and without anyone knowing his way of worship. It was the Baal Shem Tov's custom to devote two whole hours to "shemoneh esreh," the main prayer, said silently, in each of the three daily prayer-services.
The tavern owner agreed and Isroeli was put in charge of the flock of sheep. He took them out to the hills to pasture. When the first afternoon came, the beginning of the time for "minchah," the afternoon prayer-service, Yisroeli wanted to worship and pray to the Creator. So he stood there thinking: whom could he leave to watch the sheep?
Just then he heard a beautiful melody. He looked about and saw a young shepherd who was playing the melody on his flute and standing not far away.
The Baal Shem Tov went over and asked him, "What is your name?"
"Alexei," he answered.
"Would you like to watch my sheep for a little while? I'll give you a piece of bread if you would."
"All right, Mr. Yisroeli."
So the Baal Shem Tov took out a piece of Sabbath "challah" that he had brought along in his knapsack, and gave it to Alexei; and then left him and went up high into the mountains to pray.
Among those mountains and unbeknown to Yisroeli, a large group of bandits made camp. They had been watching Yisroeli at his new occupation; and now when he drew close, they began laughing about him among themselves: "Just look at Yisroeli the new shepherd."
They knew him well – the impoverished Yisroeli who went wandering over the hills, always lost in his deep thoughts. They had always left him alone, never tempted to harm him; for what would they want of a penniless young man who kept to himself? Today, however, he was of great interest to them. Yisroeli was now the shepherd of a fine flock; and there he was, going off to pray to the Creator, leaving hundreds of sheep grazing on the hillside.
Well, they decided, they needed a good plan how to steal the sheep from this new, unsuspecting shepherd. The bandits watched the Baal Shem Tov's footsteps as he took large strides, lost as always deep in thought. And they saw the plan unfolding by itself. For "Yisroeli" was unaware that he was about to fall into a deep ravine formed in the mountain. If anyone had tried to go across, they would surely fall into the deep ravine.
So the bandits decided on a plan. Just wait for the new shepherd Yisroeli to fall into the ravine, and then take his sheep.
Watching them grazing, the lad Alexei looked up at the hills, and he saw the leaders of the bandits, Sergiu, Stephan and Jan standing close together and ready to pounce. Alexei knew them well could not stop shaking in fear. What could he do if those bandits were to come down and take the sheep? But then he thought of his shepherd's flute. He would sound on it long shrill notes of alarm, till all the shepherds nearby would come running to help him. He would keep blowing his flute till even Yisroeli heard him.
So he stood there, flute in hand, ready to sound it until Yisroeli would hear and come running to save his sheep. Meanwhile, high on the hill the bandits stood, huddled close together, waiting for Yisroeli to fall down the ravine; and they could not stop looking at his steady footsteps.
Suddenly their eyes opened wide. They could not believe what they saw: As the Baal Shem Tov reached the edge of the ravine, the other side of the ravine moved close and joined the first side. And Yisroli kept walking without even realizing that there had been a deep ravine where he had just walked. As soon as he passed, the two sides of the ravine spread apart and the ravine appeared again.
The bandits could not understand it. They had never seen anything like this. "Well," said one to the others, "the best thing is to wait here and see how he comes back."
About two hours later, after he completed his afternoon prayers, he returned; and when he came to the edge of the ravine, the same thing happened: The two sides moved together and he walked on, again not realizing the danger he avoided.
As the Baal Shem Tov came walking down the mountain, young Alexei ran to greet him in great happiness, playing a joyful tune on his shepherd's pipe. Breathlessly he told Yisroeli of those bandits whom he had seen standing together and planning to steal the flock of sheep.
As they stood there talking, the bandits themselves appeared, shivering with fear, Alexei took hold of Yisroeli's hand. Yisroeli, however, merely embraced him. "Don't be afraid."
While they were still some distance away, the bandits knelt in reverent respect before the Baal Shem Tov. Then they came close and confessed how they had planned to rob him of his sheep. But then, they told him, they had seen with their own eyes the miracle that had happened for him: how the two sides of the ravine had twice joined together so that he could walk across in safety. Now they realized now that he was a holy man, and they begged him to make an oath of peace with them, that they should always be on good, friendly terms; and he should pray for them.
Gently the Baal Shem Tov replied, "I can pray for you only on one condition: you must swear to me by your lives that you will never touch any Jew to harm him, as long as you live."
Without a moment's hesitation, the bandits swore as he had asked, and he gave them his solemn promise that he would pray for them.
The young Alexei was still trembling as he listened to this conversationn. There and then he resolved that for the rest of his life he would be the servant of Yisroeli. This new shepherd had to be a holy man, a G-dly man: for just think of the miracle that the bandits had seen with their own eyes! Alexei knew these mountains and he had seen knew the deep, dangerous ravine that had closed before the Baal Shem Tov.
From then on, the bandits lived at peace with him, and would do him no harm. At times, a quarrel broke out among them, when they could not agree among themselves how to divide what they had stolen. Then they would bring their disagreement to the Baal Shem, and he would render a fair decision.
So passed a few peaceful weeks after Passover, as Alexei attended the Baal Shem Tov as his faithful servant. Meanwhile the two sons of the Rabbi of Yozlovitz were on their way, traveling to reach the Baal Shem Tov in time to spend Lag Ba'omer with him amidst the beautiful trees of the forest.
When they arrived at the Baal Shem Tov's home, they found only his little daughter Adelle there.
"Where is your father?" they asked.
"He is tending the sheep in the field."
It was in the morning, and the two brothers had not yet said their morning prayers. After praying with fervor, they took some cake and cookies from their knapsacks and began eating them for breakfast.
Adelle vas used to seeing visitors and guests in the house. She ran to her mother for a pot, filled it with milk and warmed it up. When it was ready, she brought it to the two brothers, to serve them each a cup of milk and some bread. As she went, her little brother Tzvi came scampering after her. In their gratitude, the two young brothers gave the children some of their cake and cookies.
Having eaten and said the Grace after meals, they asked the Baal Shem Tov's wife to let the children show them the way to the field, where they could find their great teacher. So the little children, Adelle and Tzvi, went skipping and running ahead. And at that moment Channah stood praying intently that she should merit to see Meir, the younger of these two brothers, take her daughter Adelle for his bride.
When they reached the mountainside, the two brothers saw a flock of sheep grazing, while Alexei, stood there playing a beautiful shepherd's tune on his flute. Suddenly they heard Adelle call out in Wallachian, "Alexei, come here!"
Alexei was delighted to see the young visitors who had come. Here, in the field and the forest, he usually saw no one except the bandits and a few other shepherds. . So now he came running with joy.
"Here," Adelle told him, "go and show these visitors where my father is."
"And who shall be left to look after the sheep?"
"Tzvi and I will stand guard over them until you come back."
As Alexei led the two guests, he tried speaking to them in Wallachian. When he saw they did not understand, he began talking in Polish. He couldn't help but to tell the two of the sight his own eyes had seen. How Yisroeli had walked to the very brink of a deep ravine and the other side of the ravine had moved towards the other side so that the ravine disappeared while their holy teacher hadwalked across.
Alexei went on to tell them about the bandits: how they had made a pact of peace and friendship with his master, and how he settled their quarrels. Then he told them a most astounding story:
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 email@example.com.