Master of the name

by Rabbi Asher Block | The Spiritual Athlete

JEWISH HISTORY ENCOMPASSES more than forty centuries of a people’s experience. During that span there were – not counting current life – eight important eras, each lasting about five hundred years. What is remarkably significant is that in each of these distinctive periods there was at least one towering religious figure who specially endowed it with its cultural or spiritual character. Those illuminating personalities, for the successive epochs they represented, were: Abraham (for the Patriarchal stage), Moses (for the Foundation­ setting), Isaiah (for the Prophetic era), Mattattias (for the Priestly), Akiba (for the Rabbinic), Saadia (for the Gaonic), Maimonides (for the Philosophic), and Baal Shem Tov (for the Kabalist-Hasidic).

RABBI Israel Baal Shem Tov- sage and saint of our own times- is generally identified as the founder of the Hasidic movement. The term Hasidism derives from the Hebrew hasid, usually translated as ‘pious’ or ‘saintly’. But what constitutes saintliness? At the risk of oversimplifying a profound matter, one might suggest that the root of that word itself – hesed, ‘kindness’ or ‘love’­ holds the clue to an answer. Pure, unselfish, all-inclusive love has been the hallmark of the great saints of all faiths- and such was also the case with Rabbi Israel.

The cognomen Baal Shem. ‘Possessor or Master of The [God’s] Name’, which contemporaries and subsequent generations conferred upon him, was not new, but the connotations now were fundamentally different. Previously one so entitled was presumed to possess occult powers, whereas now with the addition of the adjective Tov – (good or kindly) it signified one who lives with and for his fellowmen, gaining their confidence, because he was steadfast in his relationship with the Divine.

Folk tradition relates that to his exceptionally upright and pious parents, in their advanced age, it was announced in a vision that they would have a son, to be named Israel, who was destined to enlighten his people in Godliness. Shortly after his birth, in 1700, his mother died, and before very long his father as well, yet he was carefully tended in the community throughout his early youth.

Subsequently he embarked on his own, conscientiously immersing himself in the building of his spiritual life from within, while outwardly performing semi­ public religious services as tutor, sexton, and the like. His wife, whom he felt he met in a predestined way, was a true helpmate. She shared in the struggles during times of privation, and provided understanding support during his prolonged and profound contemplative moods. Indeed, he reverenced her as a saint. This rigorous pattern of seeking and training was pursued well into middle age, until about his fortieth year.

That which sparked this extraordinary devotional effort, according to his own account, was the final verbal legacy to him of his revered father, his first teacher.

Before his passing, my father instructed me in these words: “My son, be sure to remember always that God is with you! Do not ever allow your mind to digress from this awareness” … These words were carefully treasured in my heart, and it became my deliberate practice to strengthen within myself the holy conviction that ‘the whole earth is filled with God’s glory’ and that He is really with me at every step.

This is truly a precious testimony, for it affords us a glimpse into the inner life of a saint, and into what is prerequisite for a genuine spirituality and a comprehensive morality. Baal Shem was not content with abstractions or a formal creed; he strove and strove zealously until he actually realized the Spiritual­ Universal God as a continuing Presence in his life.

In the last fifteen or twenty years of his earthly career, until his passing in 1760, while serving principal­ ly as a Rabbi in Medziboz and its environs, the province of Podolia in Eastern Europe, he gathered around him and trained a group of dedicated disciples, and simultaneously inspired a wider circle of devotees, numbering perhaps several thousand. These in turn, in later years, were multiplied into scores of thousands, thus deeply affecting the course of Jewish life in the last two hundred years.

THE Baal Shem’s teachings, through example and precept, are many faceted, and can be highlighted and condensed into five major categories. First is God’s Omnipresence. Time and again did he declare: “There is no spot where God is not.” Of course, not everyone ‘sees’ Him, because the physical creation is a ‘garment’ the Lord has put on, whereby – in a wondrously subtle manner- He is both revealed and concealed.

“But why,” the Baal Shem was once pressed, “should God wish at all to hide from us?” To which he replied: “Observe well how a devoted father when teaching his young son to walk, stands in front of him, speaks encouragingly and holds his two hands on either side of the child. The boy goes toward his father without­ stretched arms, but the moment he comes close to him the father moves away a little and holds his hands farther apart. He does this over and over so that the child may learn to walk.”

According to an earlier mystical doctrine of Kabalah, which the Baal Shem largely accepted, there are ‘holy sparks’ in every nook and corner of creation. Through awareness of them, we are all one in God.

The ‘need to be aware’ brings us to the second category, that of Intensive Worship. Revelation, the communion between God and man, is potentially continuous, but we must yearn to experience it. When eating, drinking, working, the Baal Shem directed, take care that all should be ‘for the sake of God’. Even if wrong was done, the possibility of ‘return’ is ever present. “No one has fallen so low as to be unable to raise himself to God”- was a favorite saying of his.

And he was eminently practical: he aimed at being as precise in his dealing with Faith and Prayer as others are in dealing with law and ritual. To illustrate:

We are bid in the Bible ‘to cleave to the Lord.’ How to do that? Well, the Baal Shem taught to cleave to the Divine that is within you.

Man is where his mind is! In man there is a divine soul whereby he rises above his corpore­ al and mundane existence, above his sufferings and ills . . . ‘Forgetfulness of God is exile, remembrance is Redemption.’

‘The object of the whole Torah is that man should become a Torah himself,’ and a most effective way of attaining this Goal is through clinging to the words of Torah whose essence is the Name of God. This is done through prayer, meditation, or spiritual study.

Here is practical wisdom for penetrating the secret of Mastering the Lord’s Name. It is in substance what the Decalogue enjoins upon us when it prescribes, ‘Take not God’s Name in vain’- but rather in conviction and earnestness. Zeal and sincerity are the key to man’s relation to God. Rachmana libba ba’ ay – ‘God, the Merciful, desires the devotee’s heart’. There are numerous Hasidic tales, of shepherds in the fields or workers at their jobs, who in their own unique ways succeeded in true worship, because they were diligent and sincere.

A memorable anecdote among Hasidim recalls that the Baal Shem once stood watching a tightrope walker cross a dangerous ravine. Some followers were curious as to why he should spend time on this ‘secular’ event. Whereupon the Master explained that there is a lesson to be learned:

What enables the acrobat to do what he does? Do not most humans have physical and mental capacities as he? Ah, but one thing they lack: his confidence to do it, based upon repeat­ ed practices and experience. Just think how many chasms in life we could safely cross, if only we built our faith through practice!


The third and fourth categories in the total teaching are Help of a Teacher and Removal of Obstacles. These are highly valuable in the process of implementing God­ consciousness through spiritual practice. A qualified guide, who himself has blazed a path in spirituality, can assist others tremendously in inspiration and methods. The Baal Shem himself, in his teaching approach, generally stressed the following priorities: the individual over the mass, internal values versus externals, specific techniques rather than vague ones, the positive (where possible) instead of the negative, the promise of redemption above preoccupation with sin, a cheerful, not gloomy disposition, and the ‘heart’ in preference to the ‘brain’. It is told that when a perplexed father came seeking some light on how to handle his son who was not responding to lecturing and disciplines, this exemplar-teacher simply and characteristically advised, ‘Love him more’.

As for the Removal of Obstacles here too the agenda is quite explicit and clear. ‘Before you can find God you must lose yourself.’ ‘To rise to holiness, worldly cravings must be subdued.’ Coveting and materialism, sensuality and pride – these negate, and hence obstruct, our quest for the Divine.

The fifth category pertains to lnterhuman Relations. ‘Love of neighbor’, the Baal Shem insisted, is integral to ‘Love of God’. Can one truly love the parent without loving the children? ‘Let no one think oneself superior to others, for in each is embedded some God-given quality.’ Judaism, for this saintly mentor, was a religion of respect for all- the prominent and the lowly, the rich and the poor, the learned and the unlearned, men and women, young and old. He ministered to them in temples, in the alleyways, at the market, in taverns, day or night. He reached out to as many people as possible, no place too distant and no man not worthy of his love. He said, “To pull another out of the mud a man must wade into the mud himself.”

He pulled many out of the mud. He did not judge others.

His deep spiritual tendency developed in him a high regard for the common folk. He was a man of the people in the true sense of the word.

Rabbi Asher Block


“Do you want to know what Hasidism is? Do you know the story of the ironmonger who wanted to become independent? He bought an anvil, a hammer and bellows and went to work. Nothing happened- the forge remained inert. Then an old ironmonger, whose advice he sought, told him: ‘You have everything you need except the spark!’ That is what Hasidism is: the spark.”

The Baal Shem considered it an art and virtue to listen to others.

One day he saw a man who had had too much to drink; he was stammering and singing sad songs. The Baal Shem listened attentively, and remarked: “When a man confesses himself, the way he chooses to do it doesn’t matter. One may not turn away.”

“Small Tzaddikim like small sinners, a great Tzaddik likes a great sinner.”

He warned people to be suspicious of anyone claiming to have all the answers: “You want to know if a particular Rebbe is genuine? Ask him if he knows a way to chase impure thoughts from your mind; if he says yes, you’ll know he is a fake.”

“As long as the branch is not cut from the tree every hope is justified.”

Said the Baal Shem, “I was riding in a coach drawn by three horses, and not one of them was neighing. I could not understand why. Until the day we came across a peasant on the road who shouted at me to loosen the reins. All at once, the three horses began to neigh.

“For the soul to vibrate and cry out, it must be freed; too many restrictions will stifle it.”

Rebbe Mikhal of Zlotchev was asked an embarrass­ ing question: “You are poor, Rebbe. And yet everyday you thank God for taking care of your needs. Isn’t that a lie?”

“Not at all. You see, for me poverty is a need.”

One of Rebbe Mikhal ‘s prayers: “I have but one request. May I never use my reason against truth.”

Rebbe Barukh, grandson of the Baal Shem said, “This world is filled with light for whoever knows it, and covered with darkness for whoever loses his way … As for myself, I live in it as a stranger. So does God. Thus, our relationship is that of two strangers in a hostile land.”

And another time: “Imagine two children playing hide-and-seek; one hides but the other does not look for him. God is hiding and man is not seeking. Imagine His distress.”

Rebbe Wolfe of Zhitomir: “I fail to understand the so-called enlightened people who demand answers, end­ less answers in matters of faith. For the believer, there is no question; for the non-believer, there is no answer.”

The Seer of Lublin, demanding of man that he assume his own condition and not till his neighbor’s field, said: “There are many paths leading to perfection; it is given to each of us to choose our own, and by following it with great dedication, we can make it become truth, our only truth.”

Rebbe Bunim of Pshiske said: “Know that there is more than one path leading to God, but that the surest goes through joy and not through tears. God is not that complicated; He is not jealous of your happiness nor of the kindness you show to others. The road to God goes through man. The sleeping child, the mother caressing him, the old man listening to the rustling of the leaves: God is close to each of them, in each of them God is present.”

The Great Maggid Dov Baer of Mezritch a disciple of the Baal Shem: “Every lock has its key. But there are strong thieves who don’t bother with keys – they break the lock. God loves the thief who breaks his heart for God.”

Rabbi Pinhas used to say: “What you pursue, you don’t get. But what you allow to grow slowly in its own way, comes to you.”

Rabbi Rafael: “It is a curse when a man measures his behavior to his fellow-men. It is as if he were always manipulating weights and measures.”

Rabbi Wolf would not allow his horses to be whipped. “You don’t even have to yell at them. You only have to know how to talk to them.”

When his son had died, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak danced as he followed the bier. Some of his hasidim could not refrain from expressing their astonishment. “A pure soul,” said he, “was given to me. A pure soul I render back.”

Rabbi Zalman, interrupting his prayers said: “I do not want your paradise. I do not want your coming. I want You, and You only.”

The Seer of Lublin on the way: “It is not possible to tell men what way they should take. Through study, through prayer, through work. Everyone should careful­ ly observe what way his heart draws him to, and then follow this way with all his strength.”

Rabbi Nahum of Stepinesht said to the hasidim gathered around him: “If we could hang all our troubles on pegs and were allowed to choose those we liked best, every one of us would take back his own, for all the rest would seem even more difficult to bear.”

Rabbi Moshe Leib said: “A human being who has not a single hour for his own every day is no human being.”

And: “How easy it is for a poor man to depend on God! What else has he to depend on? And how hard it is for a rich man to depend on God! All his possessions call out to him: ‘Depend on us!'”

Rabbi Heshel said: “A man should be like a vessel that willingly receives what its owner pours into it, whether it be wine or vinegar.”

During a period when the cost of living was very high, Rabbi Mendel noticed that the many needy people who were his guests received smaller loaves than before. He gave orders to make the loaves larger than before, since loaves were intended to adjust to hunger and not to the price.

A learned but ungenerous man said to Rabbi Abraham of Stretyn: “They say that you give people mysterious drugs and that your drugs are effective. Give me one that I may attain to the fear of God.”

“I don’t know any drug for the fear of God,” said the Rabbi, “but if you like I can give you one for the love of God.”

“That’s even better!” cried the other. “Just you give it tome.”

“It is the love of one’s fellow men,” answered the Tzaddik.

Rabbi Moshe of Kobryn: “In this day and age, the greatest devotion, greater than learning and praying, con­ sists in accepting the world exactly as it happens to be.”

After the death of Rabbi Moshe, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk asked one of his disciples: “What was most important to your teacher?”

The disciple replied: “Whatever he happened to be doing at the moment.”

When Rabbi Yitzhak Meir was a little boy someone said to him: “Yitzhak Meir, I’ll give you a gulden if you tell me where God lives!” He replied: “And I’ll give you two gulden if you tell me where he doesn’t!”

The Baal Shem Tov


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