The Baal Shem Tov would often converse with the Eliyahu haNavi (Elijah the Prophet). His disciples begged him to share one of these visits with them. After much nagging, he agreed.
One Friday afternoon, as was the custom, the Besht led his students into the fields to greet the Sabbath Bride. As they walked, the Baal Shem Tov said, “I would like to smoke a pipe, but I have forgotten to bring mine with me. Do any of you have a pipe I can borrow?” None did. The Besht then pointed out a Polish squire walking nearby, saying, “Please ask the squire if he has a pipe I can borrow.”
It was not the custom of Polish nobles to have much to do with Jews, but this gentleman agreed and followed the students to their teacher that he might give it to him personally. The squire filled the pipe and lit it with the spark of two flints. As he smoked, the Baal Shem Tov asked the squire about the year’s harvest and whether the threshing houses were yielding much grain. The Hasidim quickly grew bored and wandered off. When they returned, the squire had departed.
“There,” the Besht said, “I have kept my promise. That squire was Eliyahu.”
“What?” his Students cried. “And you did not tell us?”
“If you had not ignored him you would have known and understood the two questions I asked him. When I inquired after the year’s harvest, I was asking whether people have turned their souls toward heaven. When I asked him about the yield of grain, I was asking whether the piety of our prayers was calling down the blessings of divine grace.”
“And what did he say?” the Hasidim asked in astonishment.
“He said what he said,” the Besht said.
Eliyahu haNavi: Elijah the Prophet. According to the Hebrew Bible, Elijah never died but was taken bodily into heaven. For millennia, Jews have believed that Elijah regularly returns to earth to honor the pious and to teach the ardent seeker.
Sabbath Bride, or Queen: Thought to be the embodiment of the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence in the world. Among the kabbalists of sixteenth-century Safed, it was customary to go out into the fields on Friday at twilight to welcome the Sabbath Bride. This custom can be traced back over a thousand years to Rabbi Hanina, who would stand at sunset on Friday and say, “Come, let us go forth and welcome the Sabbath Queen,” and Rabbi Yannai, who would do the same saying, “Come, Bride! Come, Bride!” (Shabbat 119a). Today we honor these Rabbis and their practices with the singing of Lecha Dodi (Come Beloved), a mystic hymn written in Safed by Solomon Alkabets (1505-1584).
To the Hasidim of Poland, encountering Elijah as a Polish squire was scandalous. Polish squires were infamous for their boorishness and anti-Semitic violence. That, of course, simply makes the Baal Shem Tov’s point all the more powerful: Nothing is as it seems; nothing is beyond the reach of God’s redemptive power.
What does Elijah say to those he meets? He says what he says. There is no way to communicate it secondhand. Either you see him or you don’t. The key is to keep your eyes open. Always.