Parshot Festivals

Sage words from the Baal Shem Tov

  • RabbiAvtzon
If you would ask me, “Rabbi, what’s your favourite story ever?”, it would be the following little tale which I hope will resonate with you too, especially in the unusual times we find ourselves in.
by RABBI LEVI AVTZON | Apr 02, 2020

But first, let’s state the obvious. Our generation has never confronted the challenge we are all in together – alone. This is uncharted territory for modern man and woman.

As I write these words, we have no idea when shuls and schools will reopen. I’m sitting at my home computer (trying to avoid the screaming kids), less than 100 hours into lockdown. I think I’m already losing my sense of time and equilibrium.

Oh, and then there’s Pesach atop of all that. That beautiful holiday full of tradition, much of which won’t grace our tables this year due to social distancing (I prefer “physical distancing”), the separation of generations, and the avoidance of large gatherings.

There are so many feelings out there. But if I had to guess the two most potent feelings across the community it would be:

First, fear of the unknown; second, a deep sadness and compassion for all those left alone during this time, especially those who need the support and love of their families and community such as the elderly, the sickly, and those who live alone.

Which leads me to this little tale:

One of the greatest revolutionaries in Jewish history was a man known as Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, in English, Rabbi Yisroel Master of the Good Name (1698-1760). He was the founder of the Chassidic movement. (Indeed, all Chassidic movements across the world – and there are many of them – trace themselves back to the Baal Shem Tov and his ideas.)

Numerous wondrous stories are reported about him. The story I’ll share with you isn’t about wonders and miracles. It’s not even so much about him, rather it’s about his wise father.

By the time the Baal Shem Tov was five years old, both his mother, Sarah, and his father, Eliezer, had passed on. He was then raised in a local orphanage until he joined a group of mystics in his adolescent years.

Before his death, Eliezer called his son, Yisroel, to his bedside and told him, “Yisroel, know and remember throughout your life that the almighty G‑d is always with you. Remember not to fear anything and anyone except for your Father in heaven! And remember, also, to love from the very core of your heart every single Jew, regardless of who or what they are!”

That’s it. That’s the story. Oh, what a story!

In his adulthood, Rabbi Yisroel would go on and change the world through the power of his revolutionary insight and passionate love, and all his ideas were based on those two simple truths: to fear nothing and no one except Hashem, and to love each Jew no matter what and no matter who.

This story has given me encouragement during the most challenging moments. When I find myself in moments of sadness, pain, hurt, frustration, grief, or anger I try to bring that story to the forefront of my consciousness. I imagine a tiny five-year-old boy who had already lost his mother and was now about to lose his father. A five-year-old boy.

And his saintly and wise father turns to him and says, (I’ll put it in my own words), “My child, there’s so much in life that’s not in your control, but do you know who controls it? Not the government, not the society, not even an uncooked bat in Wuhan, China. When we say that life isn’t in our control that isn’t a statement of defeatism, but rather a declaration of faith. The creator runs this world, and He is the only one to turn to, not with ‘fear’ but with ‘awe’. Turn to your Father in heaven.

“My dear, we believe in divine providence and how nothing can happen in this world if G-d doesn’t will it. Remember that G-d is full of love, so be calm, and have faith. It will be ok.

“And my child, in times of pain and suffering, you might choose to be a victim, to blame, or to simply avoid society and enter a cave. My boy, never forget to love. Love everyone with the very core of your heart. Show compassion, empathy, don’t judge, don’t look down on the other. Treat them like they are the beloved children of the creator, which they truly are.

“When you meet your fellow, show them how much you care, first and foremost, about their physical needs. Do they have food? Can they pay their rent? Can they afford medical aid? Help them!

“Only after you show them unconditional love and concern for their material well-being, then you must show them more love by sharing your spirituality with them. Teach them, guide them, inspire them, help them to ignite the fire in their soul, help them see the beauty and warmth of Judaism. And you will succeed, because you have done it with love and without judgement.”

That’s the story my friends. It’s a story for our times.

Fear nothing and no one. Hashem is in charge. Let go, and let Him in. We are in His loving hands. Don’t let panic take over. Don’t let the word “corona” become the topic of your every conversation. Keep on living. Keep on believing. Study. Develop good habits. Do the things you never have time to do. Read a million books to your kids or grandkids (on Skype or Zoom). Keep your world spinning.

And love. Let your heart burst with love and compassion. Reach out to the lonely. Show them how much we value them. Hug your loved ones even tighter than before. Don’t waste this quarantine time on bickering and petty fights. Cherish the moments that you have with the nearest and dearest to your heart.

This will be a time that we will speak of for many years. I pray that our memory of this era will be full of serenity and love.

Chag sameach to you!

  • Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi of Linksfield Shul.

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