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Wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

NOTE: This is the first of a series of articles that articulate the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov. The pieces come from my new book, There is Only One Love: The Ba’al Shem Tov in the Modern World.

A Teacher of Love
The tales about the Ba’al Shem show him to have been a man who was intoxicated with God. He emphasized the notion of the divine as a constant living presence, the vivifying power of goodness and love that pervades the world. He spoke about God’s love suffusing the universe and everything in it, and most especially the souls of human beings. Because of this he taught that it is both the duty and the privilege of Jews to become channels of divine love, spreading it to all those whom they encounter. He revealed the joy of our profound unity, the subtle interrelatedness of all beings, every manifestation of the unfolding universe. This was not an abstract concept to the Besht. He lived it out in his daily life.

A father once came to the Besht and told him that his son had broken away from Jewish tradition. “What should I do, Rebbe?” the man inquired.

“Do you love your son?” asked the Besht.

“Yes, I do,” replied the man.

“Then love him more,” said the Besht.
The Ba’al Shem Tov once told his disciple, the Rav of Kolomaye, “I love the Jew whom you might consider the lowest of the low more than you love your only son.”
Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, a principal disciple of the Besht, once asked the holy Ba’al Shem Tov why he called those who followed his teachings hasidim—pious and loving men—even those among his disciples who were no longer earnest and zealous. For the term hasid, he stressed, should refer only to one who has attained the highest spiritual rung.

The master answered by citing a particular Talmudic teaching from which he learned that the core principle of Hasidism is this:

One must love one’s fellow human beings and never harm them, even if this entails harming oneself. Thus, love of the other takes precedence over love of oneself . . . I have chosen to inculcate this virtue above all others into the hearts of my followers. And if you look deeply into their souls, you will detect at least a small part of this virtue in each of them.

The Ba’al Shem came out of a traditional culture in which compassion for others was cherished as a high virtue. But the Besht goes even further: the other is more important than oneself. We live in a society that promotes the idea that individual freedom and fulfillment are the highest values, more important than our responsibility for caring for others. Thus, the Besht’s notion of self-sacrificing love represents a major challenge to contemporary values. The master’s view is found in the thought of the modern Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, who taught that every individual has an infinite responsibility for the life of the Other.

To judge by some of the earliest tales told about the Besht, however, his ability to love did not come easily to him. He was orphaned as a young child and he grew up without much adult supervision. Hating school, he would run into the woods to be alone. The earliest collection of stories about him reveals a kind of aversion to being with people and a preference for solitude. Later, when he became a public figure he could be judgmental and angry toward people. At times his self-regard and his grandiosity dominate his behavior.

As I read the stories about his life, and his teachings on teshuvah, self-transformation, it seems to me that he must have struggled vigorously to transform himself into the saintly leader he eventually became. His efforts have given me hope as I have struggled to refine my own imperfect life.


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