Battling the Lion

They stared at their teacher, drenched from his head to his heels; his shoes were torn and had holes in them, as though someone or something bit them with sharp teeth…

6 min

Rabbi Tzvi Meir Cohn

Posted on 26.07.10

“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, part 16

In the last episode, the Baal Shem Tov explained to his two young students that his special relationship with Alexei was partially due to how Alexei's father had given him a book from Adam Baal Shem.
In the early years before the Baal Shem Tov became known far and wide, he earned his living as a "shochet," a ritual slaughterer, in the village of Koshlevitz. At that time, he had but two faithful pupils, who were eager to learn whatever he taught them. Their names were Yitzchak Dov and Meir, the young sons of the Rabbi of Yozlovitz. They clearly recognized the greatness of their teacher even though he kept all of his wondrous qualities completely hidden. In fact, they left their father's home and chose him as their teacher – this man who worshipped the Almighty in secret like no one else in his generation.
The Baal Shem Tov loved youngsters and children. He knew how to capture their hearts and gently persuade them to grow into the way of the "chasid" like himself. So these two were the very first of the many fine, Jewish youngsters who had the good fortune to learn Torah from this master teacher who at that time kept himself unnoticed and unknown.
Especially when the Baal Shem Tov prayed, when he stood with all his thought wrapped in the words of prayer that he whispered to the Almighty – the two young pupils felt his holiness.
Once he said the afternoon prayers, "minchah," in that village of Koshlevitz, and all the vessels in the house quivered and shook. Indeed, it seemed to the two that even the sacks of wheat in the field nearby were shaking and dancing. They felt a fearful, awesome holiness, just as if they were standing at Mount Sinai when the Almighty came amid the fire to give His people the Torah.
In the summer, when he went out for the afternoon (minchah) prayer, the Baal Shem Tov would go to the woods to pray among the trees, taking his two young pupils with him. At that time, it seemed to them that the trees in the woods were singing along for joy. The sound of the moving, waving boughs and leaves was so sweet to their ears, like a new hymn of praise in the minchah prayer, that the trees were chanting – the trees which loved so much to be alone here in the woods, far from the noise and tumult of town and city life. As the sun was setting, beginning to disappear beyond the horizon, the green trees bowed low in the sighing wind, to whisper their prayer to the Creator in heaven. Just like Jews in the synagogue, they swayed back and forth in their prayer.
How much Divine natural harmony there was in this outpouring of pure, clear prayer by the trees in the woods, which had never sinned, never done anything evil, and never hurt anyone. They grew tall and spread their leaves, so that wanderers and travelers on foot could rest in their shade. Their branches provided wood generously for the fires in the stoves of the little synagogues and houses of study, where good Jews sat learning Torah night and day.
It was wondrously pleasant to hear this prayer of the trees, as they bid farewell, with their blessing, to the sun that had given their thick branches light and warmth so lovingly through the day. The youngsters thought they could almost hear the holy call of the trees to the great golden sun, "Goodbye, till we meet again."
The two youngsters watched the face of their beloved teacher, cast in shadow, as he stood completely alone, apart from the whole world. His mind knew nothing but the prayers he was saying. He was all by himself, like the trees around him. He did not even know now that he himself existed, a human being with a body. He only heard the whispered prayers of the trees, and he prayed with them.
When the prayer was over, they returned from their walk in the woods; and the Baal Shem told his pupils then a wondrous story about Rabbi Akiva. With the freshness of their young minds, they listened when he told them what Rabbi Akiva used to say when he sat teaching Torah to his thousands of pupils. That great sage would remember all the foolish things he had done from his childhood on (he had not started learning the Torah till he was forty). Then Rabbi Akiva would say aloud, for all his pupils to hear:
"I thank You, L-rd my G-d, that You have made it my lot in life to be among this who sit in the house of Torah study, and You have not made it my lot in life to be among those who sit in corners (in idle pursuits)."
The youngsters enjoyed hearing this prayer that Rabbi Akiva used to say with his pupils, and they quickly learned its words.
The next day, when the time came for the afternoon prayer (minchah), the sky was covered by thick clouds, and raindrops were falling. The youngsters wanted to go with their teacher into the woods, as always; but he made them stay behind, for fear that they might catch cold.
Late that night the Baal Shem Tov came back, his face all red, drops of sweat rolling down his forehead. As they stared at their teacher, from his head to his heels, they saw that his shoes were torn and had holes in them, as though someone or something had bitten into them with sharp teeth.
Frightened and trembling, they pleaded with him to tell them what happened. With all his love for the youngsters and his wish to tell them, he still found it hard to speak, because he always ran away from any kind of honor or glory, and he feared becoming known and famous. They become only more curious, however, and they pleaded with him to tell them what happened.
The Baal Shem Tov was certain his two pupils knew how to keep a secret. They would definitely remain silent about something he ordered them not to tell others. Impressing on them now that they must never tell this to anyone, he began:
When I finished "shemoneh esreh," the long silent prayer of Minchah, a lion suddenly appeared. As I continued the afternoon prayer, saying "aleynu," the lion came closer and began tugging at my clothes; and I began shivering with fear. Then I stopped and asked myself, "Where is my fear of Heaven? Where is my faith in the Almighty? In the Torah He said that the fear and terror of man is to be upon every beast of the field." This is what He told the good pious man Noah. So why should I be afraid of this beast?
And then I began battling with the lion. It bit my shoes and clothing, but I struck it powerful blows, and I won. It ran off into the woods, yowling.
The youngsters looked at their teacher with admiration in their eyes. To think that he had won a battle with a lion. The scene, as they imagined it, filled them with happiness. Yet at the same time they felt a keen disappointment. Why had he not taken them along, so that they could have seen this?…
"Rabbi," they exclaimed, this is just like the story in the Torah about Samson and the lion. He also fought it and won."
"Well," said the Baal Shem Tov, "you just remember well all that I have told you. There will come a time when people will tell about my actions – what I have done but they won't tell about my fear of Heaven, my faith in the Almighty. So you remember!!"
Just then, the door opened and a man entered. When he saw the youngsters sitting at the table with their teacher, he exclaimed for joy, "Thank Heaven I've found you, alive and well. Your parents are sitting at home filled with worry, almost in tears. They are afraid you have become lost or have wandered off somewhere on the road or in the forest, and perhaps some wild beast has torn you to shreds. You must return home at once."
"Go, dear pupils, go," said the Baal Shem Tov. "It is an important mitzvah for you to respect and honor your father and mother."
With tears in their eyes they embraced him and took their leave, giving one last shout, "Long live our rabbi."
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

The Baal Shem yearned again for life in a village, where he could go off by himself and study Torah and worship the Almighty in prayer, in complete solitude…