He was known as ‘Israel ben Eliezer’ and he was born around 1700 A.D. in a small village Okop perhaps in the Ukraine. The place and the date of birth, and the poverty or the affluence of parentage – these are of interest to scholars, not to men-of-God, the mystics foremost among whom was Israel. Even he did not leave a clue to these.
He was considered the Baal Shem Tov (the Master of the Good Name). Some even considered that he was Moses. He was not the first Baal Shem (Master of the Name), nor was he the first Hasid but he is perhaps the best known of them all. The Hasid were sworn to asceticism and to obscurity: however, when Israel appeared, on the scene he became the best-known Baal Shem.
The Baal Shem Tov did not found a school of thought, though he is regarded as the founder of modern Hasidism. When his own immediate disciples endeavoured to commit his teachings to writing, he would gently but meaningfully chide them: “There is nothing of me in your pages; you thought you heard what I didn’t say.” Yet soon, he became something of a legend, thanks to the zeal and the devotion of his devotees.
Very early in his life he was orphaned. Legend has it that his parents were a hundred years old when he was born. However, his father had left him an invaluable legacy in the admonition: “I leave before I can make you into a man who fears God and loves those who fear him. Remember one thing: God is at your side and he alone is to be feared.” This, to young Israel was gospel, in every sense of the word.
Israel was obliged to marry early in life, but lost his wife soon after marriage. He eked out a meagre living doing odd jobs. Once again he was betrothed, this time to a girl who was a baby. Soon after this, the girl’s father died. Years later Israel went to the girl’s brother to claim her. Her brother tried to dissuade her; and even Israel warned her that his life had a spiritual goal and that as his wife she, too, would have to face a difficult life. But Hannah was prepared for all this. The brother-in-law was loathe to let the sister and her eccentric husband live near him, and he sent them away to the Carpathian mountains where the young couple lived a miserable life.
The spiritual radiance of the Baal Shem Tov grew in brilliance all the time. It is said that on a Saturday a young man who was the Baal Shem’s guest woke up at midnight with a fright to find that there was a huge flame in the house; and he was wonderstruck to discover that the flame issued from the body of Israel!
It is said that when he was thirty-six years of age, he had a vision in which it was revealed to him that it was his destiny to be a spiritual leader. In his inborn humility and simplicity, he felt that he was unworthy of this and fasted for three days. But the divine will inexorably led him along the path of leadership. He had many holy visions; and the people recognised in him an unquestionable leader.
The Baal Shem Tov was one with all, and everyone, however lowly and unworthy in the eyes of the people had free access to him, and found in him a great helper. Mr. Elie Wiesel says of the Baal Shem Tov: “To have his gaze rest on you meant feeling his fire run through you. An old peasant protects him from the cold – in return, the peasant will become rich and live for a hundred years. A boy recites his lesson with fervour – he will reap glory among his peers. A thief has the misfortune to cross his path. Discovered, he turns to the Master and says: ‘Since you know how to look, why don’t you rather try to see the good?’ And so, even the thief enters the enchanted garden of Hasidic legend.” There were those who criticised him; but he found no one worthy of his condemnation. He stooped to conquer even the vilest among men; no one was beneath his attention. It is said that he constantly travelled from one village to the other, giving everyone the feeling that he was everywhere at the same time.
The Baal Shem Tov’s teachings were exceedingly simple. He did not condemn scholasticism, but he pointed out: “God listens to the shepherd playing his flute as readily as he listens to the saint renouncing his earthly attachments.” He taught that the daily life itself is divine life. His was a gospel of joy. He pointed out that it was only a self-centred selfish man who was subject to unhappiness, whereas one who became aware of humanity rejoiced and such joy itself led one to God.
The Baal Shem Tov’s vision of humanity included all human beings whether they were regarded saintly or sinful; his vision of life included all aspects of it. He did not attempt to convert anyone to Judaism. He encouraged all to be faithful to one’s own faith, to be faithful to one’s own self. Mr. Wiesel says: “The Baal Shem’s major concern was to create links at every level. To him, everything that brought people together and consolidated the community was good; everything that sowed discord was bad.”
Many miracles are attributed to the Baal Shem Tov and it is said that he taught even the angels, even as legend accounts angels among the disciples of Lord Buddha. But the supreme beauty of his life lay in the utter simplicity of his teachings and the radiant divinity of his life.
Towards the end of his life, his ecstasies were even more intense than they had been before; his behaviour became even more eccentric than before.
The Baal Shem Tov was sixty years of age. And it was the passover. He took ill. After seven weeks of this illness he sensed that his end was near. The disciples gathered around him, grief written on their faces. He himself consoled them: “Why do you cry? I am leaving by one door, only to enter by another.”