The Ba'al Shem Tov is always able to see the good in people. Chassidut in general is an incredibly uplifting philosophy of life. It focuses on joy, on positivity, on everything that people do well. It offers the ultimate defense to God. No matter what people do, the Besht is always able to look at their actions from a positive angle. How can I not love reading these stories? They make me happy! Everything in them focuses on the good!
Here, then, are some beautiful Baal Shem Tov stories from Tales of the Baal Shem Tov by Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Klapholz.
- Squeezing the Heavens (Volume 2, page 116)
There was once a draught in the times of the Baal Shem Tov. A fast day was proclaimed and special prayers were said in the synagogue. The Besht noticed one unlearned man among the worshippers who placed particular emphasis in the Kerias Shema upon the words, "And God will restrain (otzar) the heavens and there will be no rain," weeping and bawling as he recited them.
When the Baal Shem Tov later asked him what his thoughts were as he exclaimed this verse so fervently, the simple man answered:
"I was beseeching God that he squeeze the heavens (otzar- as in atziras anovim- the squeezing of grapes) so that no rain remains above and all will fall upon the earth."
It was through this very man's prayers and concentration, explained the Baal Shem Tov, that the people's supplication was answered, for the blessed rains fell soon afterwards.
The Creator who divines a person's innermost thoughts, desires the service of the heart and was gratified by this simple man's intent, although confused, which had sprung from the depths of his soul.
And another story:
- The Chirping Youth (Volume 2, page 123)
It was Yom Kippur in the Baal Shem Tov's kehilla. A tense atmosphere could be felt, especially in the holy Baal Shem Tov's attitude, for he had discerned an unfavourable sentence written in heaven for his people.
Pouring out his heart to God, he begged that they be shown divine mercy. The tefilo of 'neilo' he especially prolonged in the hope of interceding in their behalf. His talmidim felt the tension and they too burst into bitter tears and were joined by all the worshippers in the synagogue in a heart-rending service.
A young villager was present in the congregation. He was a simple, illiterate shepherd who, not knowing how to pray, would follow the chazon's every move, moving his lips in rhythm with his voice.
When he now felt the intensity of the "neilo" prayers he too was broken-hearted. He helplessly began to utter the sounds that were familiar to him, sounds of cattle and wild animals. The worshippers around him became alarmed and tried to silence him. Several men even got angry with him, and yet others tried to have him evicted from the synagogue. But he held his own, stubbornly insisting:
"I pray to the God of Israel with the only prayers I know!"
It was the shammos who finally came to the youth's rescue and restored decorum to the synagogue, telling everyone to continue with his own prayers.
When neilo was over the congregation could sense that the crisis had passed for the Baal Shem Tov's face now beamed joyfully and he began to express his relief in song.
That evening, at the meal, the Baal Shem Tov told his followers that he had incurred heavenly wrath by sending people to live in distant villages where they were exposed to the gentiles and their evil ways. Indeed, his messengers had found the state of the villagers spiritually poor and now he and his community were in grave danger.
"At that moment," recounted the Besht, "the youth's voice reached heaven. His lowing and chirping rose straight upwards and when these sounds were accompanied with the words 'Ribono Shel Olam, have mercy!' they penetrated until the heavenly throne. They caused such satisfaction and pleasure above that the criticism against me and my flock disappeared and our sins were forgiven."
- When the time came for the maggid's sermon, all the townspeople assembled in the Beis Medrosh. The maggid went up to the pulpit and began with the words, "There are seven kinds of punishment," translating it into a Yiddish which everyone could understand. The entire congregation burst into tears. The maggid spoke in a dry angry tone, reproving all those who were not God fearing, threatening them with hunger. The crops of the fields, the fruits and the vegetables, would all wither, he warned, after which the Lord would punish their families.
The audience let out a remorseful wailing. Men and women, old and young, wept with bitter tears. The maggid continued saying that God was liable to punish them with blood, too; at first their chldren and then the parents, leaving orphans and widows, as he had done, Heaven spare us, during the terrible years of 5408-09. When they heard these harsh words a pained cry escaped from all those assembled. Many of them fainted and the panic mounted by the minute.
The Baal Shem Tov entered the Beis Medrosh in the midst of this commotion. Seeing the weeping and self recrimination, he inquired what the maggid had told them and was deeply touched by the pain of the townspeople. He stood by one of the tables, turned to the maggid and spoke in a loud clear voice.
"Rabbi, it is stated in the Midrash that Hakodesh Boruch Hu told Moshe Rabbenu to reprove Him, as it were. Who are you then to say harsh words to these townspeople who serve their Creator so faithfully! You should instead reprove Hakodosh Borch Hu, as it were, for not having shown mercy upon His children. And now, that he had indeed shown them Divine compassion by sending them the blessed rains, let them continue to worship him faithfully!"
"Amen!" shouted the entire congregation.
Kaddish Derabonon was said after the Drosho and the congregation began saying the Psalms of Shir Hamaalos with joyous fervor.
(Volume 2, pages 12-13)
How uplifting, how beautiful all of this is! Unfortunately, there are so many people who have been erroneously taught that the only people one can truly respect are the extremely learned scholars who exist on some incredibly high level that bears no relation to reality. But that's not so! The people whom one should respect are those who serve with devotion, love and honesty, those who are sincere and genuine and who serve God to the fullest capacity of which they are capable. Each person has different abilities and capabilities; each person serves God differently! The scholar serves God with his holy intentions and thoughts and the texts that he understands and those who do not know as much also serve him in their own way, whether it be through giving of their time and money to important causes or reciting Tehillim or otherwise connecting with Him.
Of course, the goal is to educate everyone so that everyone is able to achieve a higher understanding of God and serve him in a more thorough way, but it suddenly occurred to me that I might extrapolate from the Besht's teachings. Now, the Besht described how beloved the service of the simple, illiterate and unlearned Jew is to God. In our generation, we do not have illiterate and unlearned Jews. But we certainly have people who have not been taught well and have not been educated appropriately, or those who have been taught but who have a skewed understanding of halakha and religion. But if they are sincere in the way they serve God, if they believe what they have been taught, however flawed it might be, and act out of good intentions, God is the one who will know what they really mean and what they really wish to do, and will understand appropriately.
So! I think I see a way not to judge people, which is wonderful. If you have been taught a certain way and that is all you know, how can I possibly expect you to act differently? And how can I expect you to step outside the box within which you've been raised, and how can I expect you to question things? I can't, of course! What remains to be seen is whether what you have been taught is valid or simply something distorted; if it is valid, well and good, and if it is distorted, you do not know it is distorted and in your confusion, you mean well, and so God will understand. The only question is whether man will understand. And perhaps he can! Perhaps I can, too!
Understand a person's intentions and you will understand him. Understand a person, and you will see what you have in common with him rather than what keeps you apart. And perhaps you will even find a way to show him what it is that he should do differently so as not to hurt you, and others like you. And you will accomplish this through kindness, not through anger. See as they do, live through their eyes, look at the world as they do, and you will suddenly be struck by a blinding flash of insight- of course! This makes sense! And if this is how they see it, this is what I need to do! You have to show people things in a way they understand. But in order to do this, you need to understand them first.
If the Ba'al Shem Tov was able to so love the unlearned, illiterate Jew who yearned to serve God in whatever way he could, surely I can love the person who I see as a poorly educated Jew who too yearns to serve God, albeit perhaps in misguided fashion?
Of course! Why does it take me so long to see these things? Why, because it's easier not to look at it this way and simply to condemn. But condemning accomplishes nothing, whereas understanding can save the whole world.
Oh, hurrah for the Besht! And hurrah for the way he saw people! And hurrah for sudden insights in the middle of the night (amazing that everyone tries to tell me this and I don't comprehend, but suddenly I can grasp it on my own!)
Hurrah for the whole world!