by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this six-part series, I turn to the legacy of Reb Zalman for our community.
In 2005 I conducted an interview with Reb Zalman about his relationship with the Ba’al Shem Tov. The discussion, which I transcribed, was quite long and I have excerpted parts of it for this article.
I began by asking Reb Zalman what influence the Ba’al Shem Tov had had on his life. His answer surprised me: “If you were to remove every trace of the Ba’al Shem from my makeup, there would scarce be anything left of me!”
“Reb Zalman, how did you find out about the Ba’al Shem Tov?”
“My father was a Belzer hasid,” he replied, “and from time to time he would tell me miracle stories about the Ba’al Shem. These tales implanted a longing in me, a longing for the great adventure of life. Later, when I lived in Vienna, I began to read more extensively about the Ba’al Shem, especially from a book written in German by a hasid named Chaim Bloch, called Priest of Love. I was quite taken with the power of the stories about his life, and with the ways in which he made the presence of God so completely palpable. I was moved by his simplicity, his love for God, a love so powerful that he was willing to serve God even if he received no reward in the world to come.”
“And what about people, Zalman?”
“You know, the Ba’al Shem was deeply concerned with human love. Do you remember the story in the gospels about the Pharisee who comes to Jesus and asks him what are the greatest commandments? And Jesus answers: ‘Loving God with all your heart, soul and might together with loving your neighbor as yourself.’ I have a sense that the Ba’al Shem would have agreed completely with Jesus’ words. He loved God so deeply, and he really loved people—especially the poshiter Yid, the simple Jew. He accepted people where they were at without judging them. He enabled them to see that the spontaneous prayers of their hearts really counted, even when they didn’t conform to the words of the traditional liturgy. He knew that God really loved ordinary people and would listen to their concerns . . . their prayers for their families, for their livelihoods.
“And the Besht also taught that an individual may be born and live her entire life only to do a particular kind deed for another individual. This teaching is so necessary today. We’re so ego-bound that we don’t see how we are being deployed and used by the divine for her holy purpose and service. The Ba’al Shem fully understood that he was being used by God for a greater purpose …At this very moment, Burt, you and I are being used by God in the service of bringing the Ba’al Shem’s teachings to the world.” I was dazzled by Zalman’s insight.
“Zalman, which of the Ba’al Shem’s teachings do you feel hold the greatest spiritual wisdom for seekers today?”
“You know, if the Ba’al Shem were living today he would be concerned about the future of our earth. God so loved the world that she gave herself to it and became the earth. Therefore, we must love and care for the earth because she is an embodiment of the divine.”
“That’s really a powerful way of reframing the Besht’s experience for our time, Zalman,” I responded, “If we were really going to take the Ba’al Shem’s vision of God’s radical presence seriously, we would be forced to place the environment at the head of our spiritual and moral agenda!”