Friday, June 15, 2018

The Baal Shem Tov and the Am Ha’aretz

(Painting by Zvi Malnovitzer)

Otzar Nachmani, Vol. I, sec. 77
By Rabbi Nachman Burstein, zatzal
Translated by Dovid Sears (unedited)

[Rabbi Nachman Burstein writes:] Rabbi Hirsch Leib Lippel told me that he heard from the Breslover Chassidim in Uman the following wondrous story about the Baal Shem Tov, may his merits shield us.

During one of his holy journeys, the Baal Shem Tov visited a certain village where he stayed with a simple Jewish peasant. According to his holy way, the Baal Shem Tov arose at midnight (chatzos) to begin his divine service. However, he saw that the villager too woke up from sleep and took an old Siddur that was extremely thick (since it contained the prayers of the entire year). He then recited everything in the Siddur, from beginning to end, with all the blessings specific to Shabbos and Yom Tov, the Days of Awe, Chanukah, Purim, all the blessings over food, continuing until the break of dawn. This was the man’s practice every night.

When the Baal Shem Tov observed this, he was extremely upset that such a whole-hearted Jew as this would recite so many blessings in vain—which is a grave sin. Therefore, after the villager had served him his morning bread (pas shacharis), and he had already decided to depart and continue his journey, the Baal Shem Tov alerted the man concerning the seriousness of the matter and the punishment that would await him in the World to Come for reciting blessings in vain.

The village exclaimed, “Holy rebbe! What can I do? I’m an am ha’aretz (ignoramus), because I never learned anything beyond how to read Hebrew. I was orphaned as a child and had no one to teach me. I only remembered that my father, may he rest in peace, used to pray with this Siddur every day. So I follow his example and also pray from this Siddur until the end, and I can’t tell the difference between one blessing and another. But this way I feel that I have fulfilled my obligation as a Jew to pray every day before our Father in Heaven. So it is that not only do I pray with great effort, but I will be severely punished for doing so!”

When the Baal Shem Tov heard these heartfelt words, he asked, “If I set up the order of the prayers for you, so that you’ll know which are the weekday prayers and which are the Shabbos prayers, and so forth, will you accept this from me and act accordingly?”

The villager replied with great joy, “Absolutely! I will do everything you say, just as long as it saves me from the severe punishment that’s coming to me!”

Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov told him to bring him a bundle of straw. Then the Baal Shem Tov placed one short straw after each section of the Siddur to indicate that here end the weekday prayers, here end the Shabbos prayers, here end the Rosh Chodesh prayers; then he inserted a longer straw to indicate that here end the Yom Tov prayers; and an even longer one to indicate that here end the prayers for the Days of Awe, followed by still longer straws for those of Chanukah, Purim, etc. The Baal Shem Tov reviewed all this with the villager until the man understood which straw went along with which prayer service. Now the villager was overjoyed that he knew how to daven correctly, each prayer in its proper time frame. He thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely for his effort and for his instructions. Then the Baal Shem Tov went his way.

However, it wasn’t long before all of the villager’s joy ceased. For when he wished to put the Siddur back in its place, all the straws suddenly fell to the floor. He was extremely broken over this—for now he had no sign to distinguish between one prayer and another, according to what the Baal Shem Tov had taught him.

He was deeply embittered by this misfortune, because now he couldn’t daven at all, given what the Baal Shem Tov had told him about the severe heavenly punishment for reciting blessings in vain. So he was lost, without any advice. What could he do now that he had a Siddur, but was forbidden to pray? How could he bear this?

In his anguish, he ran outside. Maybe he could catch up to the Baal Shem Tov on the road. And in his great haste, he came to the river and in dismay, saw from afar how the Baal Shem Tov cast his gartel (cloth belt) on the water and crossed without a boat or ferry. So he began to scream with all his might, “My father, my father! My teacher, my teacher! Save me, for I’m such a wretch!”

But there was no sound or response; the distance between them was too great, and his cries could not be heard. Therefore, due to his great misery, he paid no heed to himself or to any danger, and did the same thing as the Baal Shem Tov!

He took his gartel and cast it across the surface of the water. Then he walked until he neared the Baal Shem Tov, and began to call out to him about the fallen straws. The Baal Shem Tov turned to face the man and saw him walking on his gartel. With his ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration), he immediately saw that the prayers the simple fellow had recited in truth and whole-heartedness, with no self-serving motive but only for the sake of Heaven, made a great impression on high, to the point that he too could perform a miracle by casting his gartel on the river. Thus, he told him in reply, “If you are able to do the same thing as me, go back home and keep praying as always!”

In retelling this story, the Breslover Chasidim add what the Rebbe [Reb Nachman] states in Chayei Moharan (sec. 520): how he envied a fellow known as “Yoss’l Siddur,” who used to pray with a thick Siddur and recite all of the supplications (techinos) and requests (bakashos) found therein. The Rebbe envied that this sincere, devout Jew was able to recite many prayers and requests with unselfconscious simplicity, and without any cleverness (“chokhmos”).

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