“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, part 14
In the last episode, robbers hidden in the mountains observed the Baal Shem Tov experience a miracle. Then Alexei, his new servant, related an astounding story: — A while ago, two of the bandits came to his master to have him decide an argument between them. One of the bandits, however, was very displeased with the verdict, because it was not in his favor. The night afterward, he hid near the Baal Shem Tov's home, planning to kill him.
"Well," said Alexei, "that night I was sleeping near my master, and suddenly I heard a voice cry out, shouting and screaming and weeping that he was being beaten with murderous blows. We went out and found this bandit, Serge – a burly, vicious robber that everyone for miles around is terrified of – and there he was lying with dreadful wounds, blood running from his hands and feet.
"The next day, when he had returned somewhat to himself, he admitted that he had planned to kill my master. But he told us that when he had come close, men with spears and swords had met him and attacked him. When my master asked him: Who were these men that attacked you, he said that he didn't know.
But continued Alexei, "I know, they were angels protecting my master, because he is a holy man."
Finally Alexei and the two young men reached the cave, the place in the hills that the Baal Shem Tov had chosen, where he could study Torah, meditate, and worship the Creator without being disturbed. Alexei pointed with his finger: "This is where my master stays."
The two youths went inside, and found their teacher seated at a small table studying the Zohar, the great book of mysticism. He interrupted his learning to give his two pupils a warm welcome. He wanted to close the holy volume, so that they could talk; but the youths put their hands on the open book and asked him to teach them what he had just been studying. This is what he told them:
Rabbi Hizkiya and Rabbi Yosa were walking on the road, when a man came along and met them. He begged them to give him some water, because he was tired and thirsty from the strong hot sun that beat down on him.
"Who are you?" they asked him.
"I am a Jew, and I am very tired and thirsty."
"Have you learned any Torah?"
"Oh, rather than talk to you, I had better go up the mountain and get some water to drink."
Rabbi Yosa took out a leather bottle of water and gave it to him. When he had drunk his fill, they said, "Let us go up the mountain with you and refill the bottle with water."
So they went together and found a spring of water, and there they sat.
Said the man, "Now you may ask me if I have learned any Torah; for Indeed I have, thanks to my son. I used to take him to school, and on account of him I also learned Torah."
Rabbi Hizkiya said, "It is good that you learned Torah by virtue of your son; but we have another matter to consider."
To this the man replied, "State your matter; for sometimes in a poor man's knapsack you may find gems."
They thereupon asked him to explain for them the following words of Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) in the Book of Koheleth (Ecclesiastes). "I said in my heart about the talk of the sons of men" (3:18).
He gave them a long explanation, and then concluded, "Come and see: The Holy One, blessed is He, cautions the people of the world, 'choose life, so that you shall live" – and this means life in the future world, the Hereafter. And Shlomo HaMelech derides those who have ho faith."
The two rabbis pleaded with the man to join them on their journey; but he replied, "I cannot. I am a messenger, and I have been sent on a mission. Come and learn from the spies, the people whom Moses sent from the wilderness to spy out the land of Canaan, that was to become the homeland of the Israelites. Because they were not faithful messengers, because they did not carry out their mission faithfully (they gave a slanderous report about the land of Canaan), they had to pay with their lives in this world and the next world."
The man embraced them, and went his way; and they did not learn who he was. They continued walking, and met a group of travelers. "Do you know perhaps," the two rabbis asked them, "who that man was who just passed by?"
"His name is Rabbi Haggai," they replied. "He is a member of the Group of holy Scholars, and they have sent him to Babylonia to learn the answers to certain questions from Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and his friends."
"Yes, yes," said Rabbi Yosa. "His name Is Rabbi Yosa, like mine. He is the one who never wants to take any pride or honor from his Torah learning. He conceals it; and this is why he said that he learned Torah on account of his son. Oh yes, he is a faithful messenger indeed; and happy in his lot in life that they have sent their messages by such a faithful deputy. Abraham's servant Eliezer was a faithful messenger; and this is why the Torah writes that he was told, 'Come in, 0 blessed man of the L-rd – literally blessed of the L-rd"
As the Baal Shem Tov finished studying the words of the Zohar, the two youths felt themselves soaring high in the worlds of the spirit, among the group of holy scholars who went walking in the wilderness, thirsty to hear words of the L-rd's Torah – especially in these days before Lag Ba'omer, the day of the year when Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's life on earth ended and he went to live as an angelic spirit in heaven. How good it was then to learn the conversations of Rabbi Shimon's pupils and friends, who had lived in the wilderness and the field, and had travelled the road on foot.
The Baal Shem Tov asked them to wait for him, because he had to go and see if all was well with the sheep and the boy Alexei, the little shepherd who was helping him.
In that cave, the two youths remained a few days with their beloved rabbi, eating and sleeping there. As the Sages of the Mishnah taught, "Such is the way of the Torah: a piece of bread with salt shall you eat, a measure of water shall you drink, and sleep on the ground…" They were waiting specially for Lag Ba'omer, when their dear teacher would certainly take them strolling in the woods, and they would learn wondrous things from him.
On the morning of Lag Ba'omer, he rose early to say his morning prayers ("schaharit") as always, with the rising of the sun. After the prayers, he told his pupils that now it was urgently necessary for him to ride to Brody, to see his brother-in-law. He was going to hire a horse and wagon, and have Alexei drive it; and they, his two pupils, were to watch the sheep. He showed them where there was good pasture for the sheep to graze, and where they could find a stream of clear fresh water for the sheep to drink. And he instructed them not to be afraid of any harm.
"But dear rabbi," the two pupils asked him, "how can you reach Brody and come back here, all in one day? It is so far from here to Brody."
"Don't you worry; it can be done." The Baal Shem Tov would not tell them, however, his secret way to cover long distances in very short time.
He blessed his pupils and embraced them. Then he went with Alexei to his home in the village. There he found a wagon harnessed to two horses waiting for them.
When Alexei went up to the driver's seat, the Baal Shem told him to turn about and face him. The boy did so and the horses ran on and on themselves, By the Baal Shem Tov's side sat his good wife Channah, whom he had taken along.
In one hour, the galloping horses brought them to Brody, to the house of Rabbi Gershon, his brother-in- law. Rabbi Gershon was not at home, however. He had ridden of to the holy city of Lemberg, about a matter of importance that concerned the rabbis of the cities. Only the orphan boy Shabsai was there, whom Rabbi Gershon (his relative) was raising in his home. Shabsai was old enough now to study Torah with Rabbi Gershon himself. He was very happy, though, to see his old friend Yisroli, who had been his teacher in his early childhood., He loved the man dearly; and now he was reminded how the Baal Shem Tov's wife Channah, whom he had known then only as Rabbi Gershon's sister, used to give him cookies and goodies very day, telling him to be sure to give some to his poor teacher Yisroli.
The Baal Shem Tov entered Rabbi Gershon's room, took a sheet of paper, and began writing a letter. "You will have to ride with Shabsai," he told his wife as he finished writing. Why?, where? To whom? And what had he written? . . . . As yet they did not know.
Having signed and sealed the letter, he handed it to Shabsai. " You are to tell no one of this." He ordered the boy. " and you must be very careful not to read it. You must ride to Lemberg at once with my wife Channah, and there you are to give the letter to Rabbi Gershon and no one else – directly into his hands."
Channah and Shabsai carried out his orders faithfully, and soon the letter was in Rabbi Gershon's hands. This is what he read.
"With the L-rd's help / Lag Ba'omer 1733 / Brody
"To my dear brother-in-law, the learned holy man of wonders . . . Abraham Gershon: Let me convey to you that you are to return swiftly to your home here because in a few days, the time will come for me to become revealed to all (so that all may know my true self). So my great spirit-teacher has told me, and you also. I therefore particularly want you to be in your home then, for who knows what that day may bring – the day when I shall become revealed and known, when we shall rejoice…. I am sending this letter with my dear wife, your sister; but she knows nothing; and for heaven’s sake do not tell her . . . .
Your brother-in-law, Yisrael the son of Eliezer of Okup."
That same day, while his wife and Shabsai travelled to Lemberg, the Baal Shem Tov returned to his home and went up into the hills to find his two young pupils, whom he had left to watch the sheep.
Meanwhile, at that moment, the two young men Yitchak Dov and Meir now working as shepherds were discussing how the Torah teaches that when the Almighty saw how Moses was taking care of the sheep with compassion and kindness He proclaimed: 'Moses you have compassion for the sheep. So you will be a compassionate and faithful shepherd of My people!"
"Do you know what I think?" said Meir, "Our teacher is going to be a faithful shepherd of the Jewish people."
Yitzhak Dov was very moved by these words. "It is written in the Talmud," he replied, "that from the day the holy Temple was destroyed, the power of prophecy was given over to children. I dearly hope that your prophecy will come true."
Suddenly they heard the bells of a wagon coming closer. They looked up and saw the Baal Shem Tov approaching in a wagon with Alexei in the driver's seat. Yitzhak Dov called out joyfully, "Here comes the shepherd!" And Meir, the younger one, exclaimed with enthusiasm, in the language of the Zohar, "Blessed be the one who arrives – blessed be the L-rd – 0 faithful shepherd!"
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.