Reb Simcha Bunem once spoke to his Hasidim, saying:
“A fellow once came to see me, complaining that even after fasting for forty days he still failed to have a vision of Eliyahu haNavi, as promised in the holy books. I said to him, ‘Let me tell you a story.’
“The Baal Shem Tov, may his memory be for a blessing, once set out on a long journey. As you know, the Baal Shem Tov had the power of kfitzas haderekh, the power to bend space so that he could travel great distances in moments. Yet, he still traveled by horse-drawn carriage in order to disguise his ability.
“On this particular journey, his horses began to speak among themselves. ‘Ordinary horses are fed at every village, and yet we pass through them without stopping. Perhaps we are not horses at all but humans who will eat at a fine inn.’
“When they passed by one inn after another, they thought ‘Well, perhaps we are not humans but angels, for angels travel as we do and neither eat nor drink.’
“At last they arrived at their destination. The horses were led into the stable, and bags of oats were placed before them. They ate just like famished horses.
“‘And so,’ I said to this fellow, ‘it is the same with you. You fast and imagine yourself an angel worthy of meeting the Prophet Eliyahu. And yet, when you complete your fast, you gulp your food like a horse.’
“Do you understand? Is this man any different from the rest of us?”
For the Hasid, spiritual pride is the greatest roadblock on the spiritual journey. As we engage in this or that spiritual exercise, we imagine ourselves growing more holy. This is pride. The quality of your spiritual practice rests on the quality of your intention. And there is only one right intention: to do what you do for its own sake, what Judaism calls lishmah. To engage in a spiritual practice with the intent of gaining something in return is to practice idolatry.
This is what the fellow in Simcha Bunem’s story was doing. He fasted to merit meeting Elijah the Prophet. This is an act of hubris. His egotism made him no smarter than the Baal Shem Tov’s horses, who thought it was their strength and not his spirit that moved them.
Now, how does this apply to you? Where do you find yourself spiritually proud? Where do you let it drop that you are a student of this or that, a disciple of one guru or another, or perhaps even a teacher of some esoteric discipline? Where do you worship at the altar of spiritual success and one-upmanship? Wherever it is, recognize it and let it go. Then go get yourself something to eat.
Eliyahu haNavi: Elijah the Prophet.
Kfitzas haderekh: Shrinking the path. Time and space are not absolutes in the theology of the Baal Shem Tov. They are attributes of God experienced by human beings while God, Itself, embraces and transcends them. The Besht had the capacity to experience the nonduality of God, wherein the seeming duality of “here” and “there,” and “now” and “then,” are transcended. Thus he could shift time and place as a matter of consciousness. Knowing this would frighten the common folk, he hid his power and traveled by coach. Nevertheless, his horses and close disciples knew that a ride with the Besht was unusual, to say the least.