Alexei’s Merit

The Baal Shem Tov’s students felt a pang of jealousy. Why did Alexei – the non-Jewish shepherd - have the privilege of traveling with the Baal Shem Tov?

5 min

Rabbi Tzvi Meir Cohn

Posted on 22.07.10

“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, part 15

In last week’s episode, the Baal Shem Tov travelled to Brody with his wife and Alexei. He sent a letter to his brother-in-law Gershon of Kitov that he should return because the Baal Shem Tov was going to reveal himself.
Across the hills, the lengthening shadows showed that the Almighty was ending the day and bringing on the night. In the darkening hour of twilight, the Baal Shem Tov returned from his journey to Brody. It was the first trip he had taken with the young boy Alexei, the non-Jewish shepherd whom the Baal Shem Tov had chosen to be his wagon driver. Soon after Alexei sat in the driver's seat, the Baal Shem Tov told him to simply let go of the reins and turnaround to face the back of the wagon, not looking at the horses at all.
"Let the horses go by themselves," he said. "They know where I want them to go." And on this journey, for the first time, the road became miraculously shortened for them, so that they covered long distances in a short amount of time.
While they were away, the two young pupils, Yitzhak Dov and Meir, the sons of the Rabbi of Yozlovitz, were out in the field, tending the sheep. As night approached, they grew frightened and trembled with fear. What if they had to spend the night in the field with the sheep? What would they do to save the sheep from the wild animals and the robbers that Alexei had described to them? Those fearful creatures and people would come out of their hiding-places at night. But when they saw the Baal Shem Tov returning, they gave a sigh of relief.
"Rabbi," they exclaimed, "you have saved us!"
During the whole day they had been thinking and talking about this journey of the Baal Shem Tov, on the day of Lag Ba'omer, when Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai's life on earth ended and has spirit had gone to heaven. Important things must be happening in the world, they thought.
Now, as evening came on, the Baal Shem Tov sensed what his two young pupils were thinking. They were waiting to celebrate this day of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai in the forest, among the trees that would remind them of the holy apple grove in heaven.
Among the trees of the forest there was one apple tree that grew small, beautiful, wild red fruit. Under this tree the Baal Shem Tov was in the habit of sitting and enjoying the beautiful world that the Almighty created. Here the Baal Shem led his two pupils now. "Come," he said, "and sit beside me under this tree. On Lag Ba'omer it is a Jewish custom to sit back and relax under a tree."
"You know," he continued, "the important thing is for every one among the Jewish people to live his life and serve the Almighty according to his level, according to how much he has learned and how much he knows. If a person tried to jump and leap to another one's level, to serve the Almighty like the other person, then he is left with neither his level nor the other one's. He remains nowhere at all.
"So you see, many acted like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, and they did not succeed at all. They tried to follow the Torah and serve the Almighty on his level, and they failed – because they only acted like him. They thought they knew what level he had reached, and they believed they could reach it too. So they failed.
"Once my great teacher of the spiritual world (Achiya HaShiloni) showed me an interesting vision. I was taken to the region of Paradise, and there I passed under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; and a great many Jews were there. Then I was taken under the tree of life, and only a few were there. Then I was brought to the inner Garden of Eden, and a very very few remained there, perhaps a handful."
The Baal Shem Tov finished the lesson by telling his two young pupils the stories of the Talmud about Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, which he explained in his own wondrous way. In the moment that he ended, they heard Alexei playing his shepherd's flute somewhere nearby, so that all the sheep came gathering about him.
When they saw this shepherd boy, the two brothers felt a pang of jealousy. Why did Alexei have the privilege to go traveling with the Baal Shem Tov on a journey where the road became miraculously shortened and they covered great distances so swiftly?
"Is it true," they asked their teacher, "that you were in Brody and you came back today – all in one day?"
"Yes, my dear friends. You know, we read in the Torah that Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to another land to find a wife for his son Isaac. After Eliezer found Rivka (Rebecca), he told her family about it, and he said in Hebrew;  Then I came today to the spring.
In the Hebrew words that he said, there is the key and a clue to the secret of traveling long distances swiftly. Those words contain a clue to the hidden mystic name of the Almighty that makes this miracle happen."
"Good," said the two brothers, "we understand. But why did Alexei, who is not even Jewish, have the privilege of riding with you on this wondrous trip, when you traveled at miracle speed?"
"If you want to know, Alexei gained this right on account of his father. His father is the Wallachian shepherd who made me able to receive the holy writings of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem. This is what happened between me and Alexei's father, Georgi the shepherd.
"One Sunday, as I was walking from my home to be alone here among the hills of Kitov, I suddenly heard a voice call out, 'Come up this hill, my master Yisroli. Come up to me, here on this hill.' I ascended the hill, and there before me stood a Wallachian shepherd, who spoke in Wallachian to me:
'I want you to know that about a month ago I was pasturing my sheep on top of this hill, when off in the distance I saw a Jewish man walking between two mountains, looking for a certain place among the large rocks and boulders that were lying there. Then he took out a bundle from his knapsack and hid it under one particular large rock, which I am going to show you. You see, he had no idea that I was standing and watching him. I thought he was certainly hiding there some treasure, some precious hoard of silver.
'As soon as I saw him leave, I went close, and I wanted to roll away the huge stone that hid this treasure, so that I could take it for myself. But the man had not gone away at all. He had only hidden to see if anyone had watched him and would now try to steal the treasure. When he saw me trying to roll away the stone, he shouted at the top of his voice in Polish, and motioned to me with his finger that I should not dare to move the rock. I was seized with a great fear, and I simply stood there trembling.'
"Georgi continued: 'He came over to me and gave me a strict warning: Beware of touching what I have hidden there. Whoever touches it, his hand will wither, and he won't be able to move it. I have hidden holy writings there, and no one is to touch them, except one holy man who goes his own unseen way here among the hills. His name is Yisroli. Now I will ask you to watch over this bundle that I have hidden; and if anyone else wants to touch it, warn him away, for his own safety.'"

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

next article

A secret letter is sent to Rebbe Geshon in the town of Brody, that the Baal Shem Tov is about to be revealed as the shepherd of Israel…