A Sermon for High Holydays by Rabbi Burt Jacobson (5774/2013)

The Ba’al Shem’s Teshuvah


            As you probably know, the Hebrew concept of teshuvah has to do with personal and communal change and transformation. This afternoon I’d like to speak with you about the place of teshuvah in the life of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Many of you know who the Ba’al Shem Tov was, but there are probably some folks here who haven’t heard of him, so just a few words about his identity. Israel Ba’al Shem Tov was a mystic, teacher and healer who lived in 18th century Poland. He is also known as the Besht. He started the spiritual movement known as Hasidism, which was the Jewish Renewal movement of 18th century Poland. The Ba’al Shem’s teachings influenced the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe in profound ways and has had a continuing effect on Jewish spiritual life. His perspective is at the core of the contemporary Jewish Renewal movement.


            In the tales told about the Ba’al Shem, he is frequently pictured as a saint. He comforts people who are suffering, he cares for the poor and he is extremely charitable. He champions the cause of widows and orphans and he is concerned with people’s livelihoods. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for the welfare of others.  The storytellers picture the Besht as a man who possesses knowledge, wisdom and good judgment. Though often serious in demeanor, he exhibits ecstasy, joy and humor. He knows quite clearly how he is to serve God and people and he accomplishes this in a fearless manner, but he also has a sense of modesty and humility.


            That’s how later Hasidim portrayed the founder of Hasidism, and the image is based on many early sources. And this i9s how he’s still pictured today in popular literature. This the the Besht I fell in love with 40 years ago.


            But as I studied more and more stories about him, I discovered that this portrayal of the Besht was simplistic and idealized, for there are also early tales about the Besht that portray him in a rather negative light. These stories reveal that the Besht had two major character flaws. First, he was prone to violent temper tantrums, and his anger fell upon people who didn’t deserve it. And secondly, the Besht could exhibit a bloated sense of grandiosity because he was keenly aware of his extraordinary talents and gifts.


            When I first read these vexing stories about the Besht’s darker side, I was both puzzled and shocked. How could this man have been considered a saint if he exhibited such blatant character defects? Well, I brooded over this question for a long time. And then one day I experienced a sudden insight. It occurred to me that one simply couldn’t be a traditional Jew in 18th century Poland and not be aware of the importance and necessity of teshuvah. Now if this was true then the Besht must have been aware of his failings, and of course he would have made a great effort to transform his character. At the time I was not aware of any stories or teachings that spoke directly about the Besht’s difficulties with anger and pride and how he worked to transform his life. But I thought that maybe the stories about the Besht’s saintliness were evidence that the master had succeeded in transforming his negative character traits. This was, of course, a conjecture, but the more I considered it, the more plausible it seemed to me. I then turned to the tales about the Besht’s life and to his teachings for confirmation of my theory.

            The Hebrew word ga’avah can be translated as pride or vanity or self-inflation or grandiosity. The Besht taught a great deal about ga’avah. He said that ga’avah cuts us off from God, and that such self-worship is equivalent to idolatry. Moreover, the Besht asserts that ga’avah is even worse than particular transgressions. And he also quoted the teaching from the Talmud that anger is a form of ga’avah. All this indicated to me that the Besht knew just how serious his issues actually were.


            Many of the teachings attributed to the Besht have to do with teshuvah. In his teachings, the Besht talks about the necessity of actively struggling against one’s regressive traits. I believe that these teachings derive from the master’s own struggle with the dark forces in himself. His teachings about pride, anger and teshuvah then, were warnings to his disciples that they were not to imitate his negative traits. Rather, they were to emulate his attempts at transforming his shadow side.


            The Besht often speaks about the need to cultivate humility as a remedy for pride. He taught that rather than projecting our negative traits onto others, individuals must stay conscious of their shortcomings, continually struggling to change and grow.


            So, did the Ba’al Shem actually succeed in his efforts? Yes, to a great extent, but not completely. We see him flubbing up again and again. He seems to have come to the conclusion that it would not be possible for him to reach perfection. On one occasion, we are told, the Besht’s disciples asked their master for permission to visit a famous spiritual master to observe him teaching. The Besht gave them his consent. Then they asked him how they would be able to discern whether this man was a true teacher or not.  The Ba’al Shem said to them:


“Ask him how to get rid of pride and arrogance. If he gives you advice about this, you’ll know that he’s a fake. But if he answers, ‘God help us, there’s no advice for this!’ then he’s a true tzaddik, because one must struggle with pride one’s whole life.” The Baal Shem Tov constantly prayed to be saved from pride.


Another tradition has it that on his deathbed, the Besht was heard to cry out


             “O vanity, vanity—even at this hour of my death you dare to approach me with your temptations, saying, “Look, Israel: What a great funeral procession you’re going to

have, because you’ve been so good and wise. O vanity, vanity—away with you!”


            In light of these revelations about the Besht’s life we have to ask ourselves: what really is a tsaddik, a saint? Saints and spiritual teachers in every religious tradition exhibit a shadow side. They become saintly precisely because they recognize and struggle with their negative traits and work to transform them. “For the wonderful thing about saints,” writes Phyllis McGinly, “is that they are human. They lost their tempers, got hungry, scolded God, were egotistical or testy or impatient in their turns, made mistakes and regretted them. Still, they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.” And religious novelist Frederick Buechner wrote: “A saint is a life-giver. I hadn’t known that. A saint is a human being with the same hang-ups and dark secrets and abysses as the rest of us. But if a saint touches your life, you come alive in a new way.” And one thing that I myself knew for certain: the Ba’al Shem had enabled me personally to come alive in a new way.


            There are three lessons about teshuvah that I take from the Besht’s story. First, the need to look more deeply at my own flaws; second, the need to learn to accept myself with all of my flaws; and third, the necessity to cultivate greater humility.


            There was not a lot of love in my family of origin, and the great challenge of my life has been learning how to love—to love people, to love life, to love God. Some 40 years ago I encountered the Ba’al Shem Tov and I sensed that he would be a spiritual teacher who could guide me in my quest. I read stories about the Besht’s life. I studied his teachings. I created spiritual practices for myself that were inspired by the Besht’s own teachings and practices. I engaged in work with my spiritual director using teachings of the Besht. And I taught classes about the Besht.


            All of this has had a positive effect on my own personal development. I have become increasingly aware of the loving presence of the Divine flowing through all things. The Ba’al Shem’s vision helped me work on negative traits that had stunted me from childhood. My capacity to care for people and the world has grown. I have internalized many of my teacher’s insights regarding compassion, gratitude, joy, ecstasy, surrender, equanimity and liberation. There are times when I loose my footing and slip up, sometimes badly, and I know that I must continue to work to deepen the spiritual and moral qualities that I have learned from the Besht.


            During this High Holy Day season I have become keenly aware of the areas of my life that call me to the work of teshuvah: my spiritual forgetfulness and inertia, my self-satisfaction and vanity, the times when I have been blind to the needs of others, the instances when I have mindlessly hurt others. I know that I still have work to do on myself.


            I have found that my imperfections provide me with an incentive to live in greater humility. I now know that my brokenness is just one instance of the larger brokenness of our world, what the Besht termed “the exile of the Shekhina.” The gift of this brokenness to me is compassion for those who are broken, and an acceptance of the flaws in other people. At the same time, I’ve come to see that despite the inevitable difficulties and suffering that are part of living, my existence is an astounding marvel, a gift of the Infinite.


“How can the harshness of existence be sweetened at the core?” the Ba’al Shem once asked his disciples. He then answered his own question: “By raising oneself toward the greatest desire of all: the longing for true goodness. And what is true goodness? It is perfect compassion.”


            Let’s take a few minutes of silence now for reflection and prayer.

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