A delegation of sages from a distant town visited the Baal Shem Tov on a matter of great urgency. He listened to their plight and then opened a Chumash (from chamesh, “five”) that was lying on the table before him. He looked at tile text for a moment, closed the book, and then proceeded to tell his visitors not only how to handle their situation but also exactly what would transpire over the next few months to resolve their problem.

Over those months the events transpired just as the Besht had predicted. The sages returned to the Baal Shem Tov to thank him for his insight and counsel. One among them asked, “Tell me, Master, is it by opening the Torah and looking inside it that you can perceive what is to happen and how best to respond to it?”

The Baal Shem Tov said: “We are taught that God created the world with light, and that this light illumined the world from one end to the other. Here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, were all present in the immediacy of that light. And God saw that the world was not worthy of this light, that access to it by the unscrupulous would cause global disaster, so God hid the light for the tzaddikim (literally, “the Righteous Ones”) to come, those few who could use it properly. Where did God hide this light? In the Torah. When a person peers into Torah lishmah for its sake and with no selfish motive, then a path is lit up, and past and future, time and space, are open in the moment. The tzaddik sees the world as God sees the world: a creation of light.”



Chumash (from chamesh, “five”): The Torah, the Five Books of Moses.

Besht: An acronym of Baal Shem Tov, used lovingly to refer to Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer.

Tzaddikim (literally, “the Righteous Ones”): Mystic saints and holy masters.

Torah lishmah: Torah “for its own sake.” Something done lishmah is something done without ulterior motive. Torah lishmah is the study of Torah for no other reason than the pure joy of honoring the text with our loving attention.

Tzaddik: Singular of tzaddikim.

Many people study the Bible, but few do so lishmah. Most people want something from the Bible: rules, truth, meaning, answers, clues to the past, prophecies of the future.

If you take up Torah with some goal in mind, it will reflect only your own desires. But if you look into it without desire, and allow the pure Light of God to penetrate your consciousness, you will see what God sees: a world of love and delight, and a way to live rooted in justice, compassion, humility, and peace.

Published in: on June 26, 2010 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)  


The parents of the Baal Shem Tov were famous for their hospitality. Each Shabbos they would find poor travelers with no place to stay and welcome them into their home for the Sabbath. They would feed them and house them, and, when Shabbos ended, give them money and food for their travels. God took note of them and their generosity, and as often happens when God takes note of us, so, too, did Satan, the Accuser.

God wished to bless these people with a child, but Satan desired to test their hospitality to see whether in fact they gave freely, or if in their hearts they harbored a hope of some heavenly reward. Sensing that Satan would not only test the couple but actively seek to trap them, Elijah the Prophet offered to go in his stead. God agreed, and the following, Shabbos Elijah returned to earth.

Disguised as a beggar and carrying a staff and knapsack in violation of the Sabbath, Elijah knocked on the couple’s door that Shabbos afternoon. Reb Eliezer opened the door, and the beggar pushed him aside and entered his home. “Good Shabbos,” he said. “I am hungry and in need of shelter!”

Reb Eliezer welcomed the beggar, and his wife served him the Third Meal of the Sabbath. The man ate and rested. He gave no thanks to either his hosts or his Maker. In the evening when Shabbos had ended, the couple prepared the Melaveh Malkah for him. Again the man ate without any sign of gratitude. He spent the night in their home, and in the morning he was given food and sufficient money to see to his welfare. At that moment the beggar revealed himself to be Elijah the Prophet.

“I came to test your hospitality,” the Prophet said, “to see the quality of your giving. And because you were gracious to me and never once commented on my insulting behavior, nor shamed me in any way, you have passed my test. God is pleased with my findings and finds you worthy of a son who will illumine the eyes of all Israel.”  That son was the Baal Shem Tov.


Shabbos: Shabbat, the seventh day of the week.

Satan: The Hebrew word satan (pronounced sah-tahn) means “adversary.” In later books of the Bible, Satan becomes a person, God’s “prosecuting attorney.”

Elijah: A ninth-century – B.C.E. prophet who avoided death and rose to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2). In rabbinic lore, Elijah returns to earth to help people in need.

Notes in celebrating the Sabbath:

Carrying things outside the home on the Sabbath is considered work and therefore violates the prohibitions against working on the Sabbath.

In Exodus 16:25, Moses instructs the people regarding Sabbath meals. He uses the word “today” three times, which led to eating three Sabbath meals: Friday evening, Saturday noon, and a late afternoon meal called Shalosh Seudos, or Seuda Shlishit, the Third Meal.

Melaveh Malkah (“accompanying the Queen”): A celebratory meal at the conclusion of the Sabbath ushering the Sabbath Queen back to heaven until the following Sabbath.

What is it about opening our door to strangers that makes this a central spiritual quality? The Torah tells us to love our neighbor only once (Leviticus 19:18) but urges us to love the stranger more than thirty times! Why? Hospitality requires that we step beyond the dualistic thinking of self and other, us and them. You open your door only after you have opened your heart. Hospitality is then an accurate reflection of the quality of your spirituality.

One who loves God but fears the stranger is one who doesn’t understand God at all. God is the Other manifest in all others. The Besht’s parents saw God manifest in every stranger and thus were no longer strangers to God. Loving God and loving the stranger are not two different things, but two different ways of honoring the same thing: the insight that all is God. Their intimacy with God translated into intimacy between themselves, which in turn gave birth to the Baal Shem Tov, who showed the world the One in whom all others dwell.

Published in: on June 19, 2010 at 7:34 am  Leave a Comment  

The Successor

The Baal Shem Tov did not appoint anyone to take his place when he died. Instead, he instructed his Hasidim to seek out his successor among the teachers of his day.

“But how will we recognize him?” his disciples asked.

“You will ask him this question,” the Besht said. “How might one be rid of conceit?”

“And if he knows the answer, he is our teacher?”

“On the contrary,” the Baal Shem Tov said. “Anyone who claims to know how to be free of conceit is a liar. Conceit comes with having a sense of self, and the self cannot get rid of itself. And thinking otherwise is the height of conceit.”

“Yet,” one Hasid said, “is it not true that we are created in the image of God? Do we not reflect the Divine within ourselves? God is not filled with conceit, so how can we be?”

The Baal Shem Tov replied, “In Psalms we read: ‘God reigns clothed with majesty.'(Psalm 104:1) God’s ‘majesty’ is in fact humility, and the Infinite God wears robes of infinite humility. Now it is true that humans mirror God, but just as a mirror reverses what it reflects, so the human world often reverses the godly. Thus, if the humility of God is infinite, the hubris of humanity is no less so.”

When the Baal Shem Tov died and the time of mourning had passed, his senior students went out in search of his successor. They spoke to many great teachers and saints, and from each one they inquired how they might remove conceit from their hearts. Each tzaddik offered words of wise counsel. Finally, they came to Reb Pinchas of Korets and posed their question.

The tzaddik shook his head and said, “I, too, stand in fear of this, and I know of no wayout.”

“This one,” the Hasidim said, “is our new rebbe.”


What does it mean that the majesty of God is in fact the humility of God? The word “majesty” suggests a glorious presence: the majesty of a king or a queen is not hidden but honored; the majesty of a sunset is so powerful as to take one’s breath away. Can the majesty of God be so different from these?

Yes, indeed. Because our world mirrors God and thus often reverses godliness, we imagine God’s greatness to be over and above us when in fact it is below and beneath us. Genesis 1:2 tells us that God hovered over the waters — and where do the waters dwell except in the low places? God is not the powerful king lording it over us from on high; God is the subtle guide supporting us from below.

When we imagine God on high, we assume that spiritual practice is a struggle to climb the tallest mountain peaks by sheer force of will. Yet, when we discover God in the lowest of places, spiritual practice is a simple surrender to gravity: It is effortless and natural. It is also humbling. Where is the victory in sliding down the mountain? Where is the pride in surrender? There is no victory or pride, and that is the Baal Shem Tov’s point. A rebbe who claims to have mastered conceit is an ego still climbing, hoping to place its flag on the summit. A rebbe who knows this conceit and realizes the improbability of escape from it is ready to surrender to the fact that you cannot get to God, you can only give in to God.

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 7:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Nothing but God

It was the custom of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, to pray alone each morning. When he came to the Ayn Keloheinu prayer at the end of his devotions, however, he would ask one of his Hasidim to gather a minyan (Hebrew for “number”) so he could conclude his prayer in community.

One morning, the gathering minyan included a young man named Reb Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz, who, years later, would become the Chozeb of Lublin. When the Maggid saw that Reb Yaakov Yitzchak was one of the ten called to pray with him, he complained: “Can we not find someone other than this batlan? He will only cause us trouble!”

The Maggid’s students were stunned at the abrasive tone and insulting words of their rebbe, but no one spoke up. On the other hand, no one raced off to find a substitute for Reb Yaakov Yitzchak.

“So be it,” the Maggid sighed. Returning to his prayer, he called aloud: “Ayn Keloheinu, there is none like our God'” He had barely completed this opening line of the prayer when Reb Yaakov Yitzchak fainted and fell to the floor.

As the Maggid and his students rushed to help their fallen colleague, Reb Dov Ber said: “I told you he was a batlan and would disturb our prayers. All I said was ‘There is nothing like God,’ and immediately he realized the inner meaning of the words: ‘There is nothing but God.’ Realizing this, his sense of separateness left him, and he fainted. If you had found someone else, he wouldn’t have grasped the meaning, and we would be done with our prayers by now.”


Ayn Keloheinu (literally, “There is nothing like our God”): According to the ritual of the Hasidim, this prayer is recited daily as part of the concluding section of the Morning Prayer service.

Minyan (Hebrew for “number,” plural minyanim): The quorum of ten adults needed for public worship. In Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities, only men qualify for a minyan; outside of these communities, women have achieved full equality in the service.

Batlan: Yiddish for “a good-for-nothing.”

“Compare and contrast” is not only a classic high school essay assignment but the very essence of what you are all about. Your sense of self depends on comparing and contrasting. But what happens when you are dealing with something that has no other with which to be compared?

This is the problem you face when you try to imagine God. God cannot be separated from the rest of reality, so no comparing and contrasting is possible. Trying to know God in this way is like trying to bite your own teeth or smell your own nose. It just can’t be done.

Knowing God becomes the ultimate koan: the ultimate mind-game that leads to awakening. If you persist with the puzzle, your ego-self dissolves, and there is a knowing that has nothing to do with you as the knower. This is what Reb Yaakov Yitzchak discovered every time he tried to imagine what God is like. His mind collapsed, and he fainted. That is, his sense of separate self dissolved into the nonduality of God as the Source and substance of all reality. He was, as the Maggid said, a batlan, good for nothing: good for the No-thing that is God.

Published in: on June 5, 2010 at 12:00 am  Leave a Comment