Love of Israel Precedes Love of Torah
The Baal Shem had the genius of discovering ways to live in accord with the world, with people. He thought of the holiness and beauty every man's soul contained, and whenever he met the plainest man, he would offer love first and only then ask him to divest himself of the shackles that prevented him from being in love with God.
He related to people as if everybody were his equal. The glory in being human, in being a Jew, enchanted him. He could discover jewels in every soul, and wherever he went he sought to foster conciliation.
The most important prerequisite of love is appreciation. The Baal Shem, who treasured the excellence of Israel, fostered a new appreciation of the people, opening up fresh wells of love.
Love of Israel is an old concept, mentioned in the Talmud as a quality possessed by Moses, the greatest of all Prophets. The Baal Shem's decisive contribution was that he raised it to a higher rank in the hierarchy of religious qualities. Judaism, as implied in the Zohar, has three essentials: God, Torah, Israel. According to a tradition, the Baal Shem said, "I came to teach love of God, love of Israel, and love of Torah."
The change in order is important. In contrast to the view of many scholars that love of Torah should precede love for Israel, the people, the Baal Shem gives primacy to Israel: the Torah was created for the sake of Israel, not the other way around.
The test of love is in how one relates not to saints and scholars but to rascals. The Baal Shem was able to sense an admirable quality in every human being. In fact, he recommended a conciliatory attitude toward sinners and evildoers, true to his conviction that God loved all men. This concept was later expressed by Rabbi Aaron of Karlin in this way: "I should like to love the greatest tzaddik as God loves the lowliest villain."
The Baal Shem's influence on Hasidism was reflected in the eagerness of tzaddikim to befriend, even to feel love for people who had become estranged from faith and observance. They were convinced that Jews who sinned also had a place of honor in God's world.
The Baal Shem related lovingly to sinners who were not arrogant and kept his distance from scholars who were. He explained his attitude:
Sinners who know that they sin are humble. Therefore the Lord remains close to them- who "abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness" (Leviticus 16:16). But he who is arrogant, though no evildoer, alienates God, for He says of him: "He and I cannot live together in the same world." (Arakhin 15b)
The Seer of Lublin also preferred the sinner who knows that he does evil to the tzaddik who knows he is a tzaddik. For the sinner who knows what he is faces the Truth, and God is Truth and is called Truth. But the tzaddik who is certain of his own virtue is mistaken, since "surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). Indeed, he is far removed from the Truth.
Reb Borukh interpreted the Baal Shem's tenet thus: is a man who leaves the righteous path ever a total villain? Part of him remains honest and pure. "When I look at such a person," he said, "I sense what is good in him without seeing the evil."
The Baal Shem Tov established an important maxim: when we detect a mean quality in a man, we do so because we possess it ourselves. Heaven wants us to become aware of it, thereby hinting at the need for our repentance.
Jews had for generations firmly assumed that scholars and tzaddikim should be treated with deference, while the lowly, the untutored, could be readily ignored. The Baal Shem challenged this assumption. He knew that one could be a scholar and a scoundrel, and that the lowly man could perform an action that justified the existence of the whole world. An evildoer ought not to be abused, since his prayer or his mite of Torah was often more welcome to God than those of the tzaddik.
This thought, expressed by Reb Pinhas of Koretz and the Maggid of Kozhenitz (Polish: Kozience), stems in essence from the Baal Shem Tov. There are two kinds of people: those who are wholly bad and those who are convinced that they are wholly good, who study diligently and mortify their flesh. But the latter experience no ecstasy; they do not really know how to study, to pray, or to carry out a commandment for the sake of Heaven. The difference between the two kinds of men is that the bad one may undergo a spiritual awakening and do penance, whereas there is no hope for the self-styled tzaddik. It will never occur to him to be contrite.
- One day a man complained to the Baal Shem about his son. He had discarded the path of piety. His conduct had become un-Jewish.
"What shall I do, Rebbe?" he asked.
"Do you love your son?"
"Of course I do."
"Then love him even more."
"Even the most impious of men is as dear to me as your only son is to you," the Baal Shem Tov once said to a disciple.
The finer qualities of simple people were often valued and praised by the Baal Shem Tov and other tzaddikim, but only rarely in Kotzk. The Baal Shem's change of order, placing love of Israel before love of Torah, was not compatible with the Kotzker's scale of values. Reb Mendl would have followed the original order: God, Torah, Israel, as mentioned in the Zohar.
Being Aflame or Having Fire Within
There are activities that man performs with delight, passion, and fire. In contrast, acts of ritual and worship can sometimes be carried out without zest, without relish. There are people who pray absentmindedly and often act as if the service of God consisted of manual labor. Obedience is holy. But does God ask for only automatic conformity?
The Baal Shem was one of those souls who thought that to love God was the natural state of man. He believed that man was prone to love God as the seed was to grow. It was the most delightful act, and without it man was stifled, a burden to himself.
The Baal Shem thought of the Jew's relationship to God as a romance, and it disturbed him to see how many rituals had become routine rather than rapturous acts, exercises in repetition rather than gestures of surprise- a hand without a heart. Faith was fire, not sediment. Did not a pillar of fire serve as a guide when the people Israel roamed in the wilderness? And fire was the beginning of light.
The Baal Shem stirred the fervor that slumbered in the ashes, and as a result of his inspiration, a new feeling of potency flowed into communities and drew people along in a stream of enthusiasm.
One of his contributions was to awaken a zest for spiritual living, expressed in hitlahavut, which literally means "being aflame"- the experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for God, when the memory of all other interests and the fear of misery and persecution are forgotten. In such instances a man seeks to give himself to God and delights in his being a gift to God.
Exaltation may last an hour, but its flower, joy, the jewel that wins the hearts of all men, lasts forever. The garnered fervors of great moments can flare forth again and again. In the new light that came from the Baal Shem's fire, the pressures of daily life no longer encumbered. People made of sighs and tears were remade into people of awe and joy.
Obedience to God in carrying out His commandments is fundamental to existence. The Baal Shem, however, thought that obedience without passion, conformity without spontaneity was but a skeleton, dry, meager, lifeless. A Jew should serve God with ardor. It was necessary, vital, to have fire in the soul. Far from resembling an iceberg or glacier, one's inner life is a hotbed of sinful desires, occasionally mixed with cruelty and self-destructive passion- a hotbed that can be purged only with Holy fire.