On Return: Teachings of the Neo-Hasidim
Rabbi Dawn Rose, PhD
I would like to begin tonight with a story about the Besht, or Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidim, who lived in the early 1700s.
The Baal Shem Tov and the Werewolf
Adapted from the Story Told by Gerald Fierst
After his father died, young Israel could not sit in school with his head bowed down, studying and reading. Instead, his eyes would lift up out of the window and over the fields to the line of trees where the forest began. The wind would sing to him – and when the teacher’s back was turned, he would run…, run…, run…, out, out, out, into the open air, flying on the breeze, out into the trees, until the teacher would chase him, catch him, and bring him back to his desk.
One day, Israel heard the call of earth and sky and ran away, but now the teacher said, “Let him go.”
And so it was that the boy lived by himself in the wild places, sleeping in mossy hollows, eating berries. He learned the language of the beasts and birds and became the friend of all living things. Sometimes he would stand in silence and listen to the stillness and then he could hear the earth singing a sweet song praising the God who made us all.
Now the time came when Israel returned to the world of humankind. He was ten years old. He took the job of collecting the children on their way to school; knocking on their doors and bidding them come.
Then he would lead them through the grass, picking the flowers for garlands that they would weave into their hair. Singing and dancing, they would march through the forest, taking pine boughs as banners which they waved above their heads; until they came to an open meadow where they would stand quietly in a circle. There, in the silence, they could hear the singing of the earth praising the God who made it all.
Now, near the village where the children lived, that there was a woodsman who had been cursed to be born without a soul. At night, when the moon shone bright, the woodsman would fall upon his hands and knees. Hair would grow all over him. His nose and teeth would grow long and his ears would come to a point. He would run on all fours and howl like a wolf. At dawn, the creature would fall under a bush, exhausted, and return to the shape of a man.
Here, one day, Satan found him asleep. The Evil One reached into the poor woodsman’s chest and plucked out his heart. Then, Satan took his own heart of evil and placed it in the body of the woodsman.
When Israel led the children into the fields, as they came to the line of trees, the monster appeared. The heart of evil had made him grow to a terrible size. All the children fainted or ran.
When their parents heard what had happened, they refused to let the children go again with the boy Israel. But Israel said to them, “It was only a wolf that ran from the trees. The creature is gone. Trust me.” And he spoke with such purity that on the next day the parents again gave him their children.
In the morning, Israel collected the children and led them into the fields. “Do not fear,” he said to them. “Whatever happens, remember the name of God and stand fast.”
And so it was, as they reached the edge of the forest, that the monster appeared. Immense, shoulders stretching from horizon to horizon, smoke and fire billowing from its mouth and nose, creating dark clouds which blotted out the sun. The children shook with fright, but they did not run.
And Israel marched forth toward the beast, not stopping until he had entered into the very being of the monster, until he found the heart of evil. Then Israel reached forth and took that black heart, filled with all the envy and cruelty of the world, and placed it in his hand.
When it lay in the boy’s palm, the heart quivered like a bird with a broken wing. Poor wounded beast that it was, Israel felt its pain and understood that all the darkness of that heart came from fear and self-loathing.
Israel pitied that heart and took it and laid it upon the earth which opened wide. And the heart fell deep, deep into the forgiving world. Then Israel led the children to school.
Of all the stories Judaism has to offer—Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Pharaoh, Purim and Chanukah, I believe this story about the young Baal Shem Tov is the one I love the most. In it, everything Jews think they know about Judaism is turned on its head.
In this story, young Israel comes close to God not through school or books but from living close to nature. He learns, not Hebrew, but the languages of animals. He hears, not formal prayers, but the earth itself praising its Holy Creator.
It is with that particular intimate knowledge of nature and the world, that the Baal Shem Tov confronts the terrifying werewolf and Satan’s horrifying Heart of Darkness. Somehow, he is not afraid. And as he holds that pulsing Heart in his hand, Israel suddenly understands more about Evil and Sin than any other Jew. He realizes that the world isn’t torn in any epic, mythical battle between absolute good and absolute evil; God and Satan, Light and Dark, Day and Night. He realizes sin is part of human life, born of our very human lives. He sees that sin is thoughts and actions born of longing and fear and need.
Holding that Evil Heart naked in his hand, he could have crushed it easily, thereby destroying the source of evil in the universe. Instead, he intuits that the best response to this sinful heart—its pain and alienation—is to return it to the Source of Comfort, the bosom of the earth.
The Baal Shem Tov listened to the heart like he had listened to the forest and the meadow. He saw it for what it really was—a heart in fear and pain, a heart that did not deserve death but rather life, healing, and kindness. In an important way, the Besht understood this was not the heart of Satan, but rather the heart of anyone, and sometimes everyone. The truth is, it is my heart he held in his hand, and sometimes it is yours.
The movement the Baal Shem Tov founded, called Hasidism, has been very concerned with hearts such as this one—broken and despairing, angry and lashing out, hearts that turn its bearer into a monster.
A later Hasidic master known as the Bratslaver Rebbe constructed an entire theology around such a heart. He taught that it is at this moment, with the heart most bitter and despairing that God is in fact the closest. In our pain and despair, we are the most isolated and unique. In the position of such pain-filled solitude we are open to a unique and individual response from God.
It is as if, having been isolated by our pain and sorrow, cut away from the happily grazing flock, we can be found by the Shepherd, lifted up and carried in a period of intimacy unknown by others who are not lost. Lifting us up out of our pain, God offers no ready panacea designed for everyone, but comfort and insight in direct response to our specific needs.
So clear was the Bratslaver about God’s special closeness during times of despair and sorrow, that he developed an entire spiritual practice based on it. In the Hasidic and kabalistic worlds there is a concept known as hitboddedut—being alone with God, so to speak, one on One. For the Bratslaver Rebbe, this was not to be a chance encounter as when one of us pauses to appreciate a baby’s smile or a beautiful sunset. Rather, hitboddedut is an encounter with God that a Bratislaver Hasid is instructed to create daily. According to this spiritual path, the Hasid is to separate himself away from everyone else in a private place, hopefully but not necessarily a lovely place. For one hour a day, he or she is to be alone with God, taking his sorrow and angers and despair to the Holy One.
The instructions for hiboddedut are so simple, even a non-Hasid can do it. Unlike the rest of Jewish orthodox practice, there are no mandatory blessings or prayers in Hebrew or in Yiddish for this process.
We are simply instructed to go to a place where we can be alone and uninterrupted with God and pray aloud, in our own language with our own words. It is to be an outpouring, a pouring out of ourselves. One on One with God. This is, according to the Bratslaver, the most authentic way to pray.
I know, praying spontaneously in our own language and words isn’t how we usually think of prayer in a Jewish context. That’s a shande, a real shame. It is as if, having so many beautiful prayers written in Hebrew and other languages, that we forgot as a people that we could pray with our own words in our own languages.
I am reminded here of another story most of you have probably heard in a different context.
It was Yom Kippur and all the men were praying Hebrew prayers in the synagogue, led by the great Rabbi, the Baal Shem Tov. All day long, they bobbed and prayed, prayed and bobbed. By the door, a shepherd boy watched, his heart longing to join in the prayer.
Suddenly, the service was interrupted by the lovely melody of a flute. The men ran out of the synagogue. On the edge of the village next to the forest they found the young boy playing his poor, handmade shepherd’s flute with great emotion. The boy was playing his flute as his way of praying to God.
The men who had been interrupted from their prayers were incensed. Grabbing the boy they hauled him back to the synagogue, placing him forcibly before the rebbe.
“Rabbi!” They shouted. “Punish this boy. He has been caught playing flute on Yom Kippur!”
To their astonishment, the Rabbi said, “Let him play.”
“But why?” they asked. “Isn’t it against the Law to play instruments on Yom Kippur?”
“Let him play,” the Baal Shem Tov said again. “For in his sweet notes he has poured out more of his heart than you in all of your recited prayers. Moreover, in his passion, the boy’s melody has lifted up all of our prayers as well.
Adapted from: Day of Awe, ed. S.Y. Agnon, “The Flute” p. 268
In this story, the boy saw the men praying and didn’t know how to join them. Because he was inspired by the prayers but unable to participate in them, the boy’s longing to pray grew and grew until it could not be contained. When he finally played his flute, the longing to reach God was so powerful that all the prayers of all the Jews praying were lifted up. The Rabbi didn’t even have to finish the service, for the service had been completed by the boy’s passionate longing and the fulfillment of that longing with his sweet melody.
This seems to be a quintessential Yom Kippur dynamic. There are all of us praying together. Many of us don’t know the prayers, a lot of us don’t like a lot of the prayers. When we stay and struggle, our hearts filled with sorrow and longing, ultimately, we lift each other up.
In both the story of the dark heart and that of the boy with the flute, the majority of people, whether praying or studying or working seem to be living in a kind of box that separates them from real prayer or life or God. It is like an imprisonment that separates people from the real joy.
Even I, as a rabbi, wrapped up (mostly) in the work of God, I can identify with such feeling of captivity. Sometimes, I just have to walk outside my home or this temple and lift up my eyes to the sky—the brilliant sun or fantastical clouds—and I am connected once again to Awe, to the Creator. In many ways, we are all thralls to daily life: never looking above and beyond, to the Greater Reality.
The Baal Shem Tov was very concerned about the majority of people who live their lives without knowing real life or real joy. He told another story about this kind of captivity:
There once was a very wise king who created illusory walls, towers, and gates, and commanded his subjects to approach him through these gates and towers. He also instructed that the riches of the kingdom be dispersed at every gate. There were those who reached the first gate, took the riches, and left [there were those who journeyed further but no one reached the king]…. Until the king’s one and only daughter bravely decided to go directly to her father, the king. The daughter realized that there was nothing separating her from her father, that it was all an illusion.
The Holy Blessed One hides in a number of garments and behind [many] partitions. The reality is, there is no separation between humans and God.
Keter Shem Tov
God in All Moments, by Or Rose p.36
According to the Baal Shem, there is nothing separating us from God except the illusion of separation. In the first story about the werewolf and the heart of darkness, that separation was caused by our thralldom to the things and tasks of this world. We cannot see the God around us because our eyes are cast downward toward our books or our work and our minds are fogged by the mundane.
In this story, the separation is God’s idea. God hides on purpose, wanting us to want God and connection, to break from the thralldom of the ordinary, to reach to the God Who is already there.
God wants us to come back. The paradox is that God is already here. God is here in everything and all around. Coming back, then, is not traveling a geographic or even spiritual distance. Even though the effort required is a breaking forth and a looking for, God is always and ever right here in front of us.
And so we may ask, what is real teshuvah, real return, if God is and always already here?
Teshuvah, ‘return’ according to the Besht, is becoming awake to life. Return is waking to our own potential for life and love.
I will end tonight with yet another story, one that I heard from another rabbinical student while I was in seminary.
There was once a rabbi of a small village who woke up one morning to find all the people of his village, and his congregation gone. They were gone from their homes and from their farms and markets and places of work.
Of course the rabbi was frightened and horrified. He went looking for his beloved people. For days he walked, through forest and hills, cities and towns. His people were nowhere to be found.
Finally the rabbi began climbing mountains in his search, hiking through icy valleys and over great snowy peaks. At last he came to a volcanic crater. Before him was a terrible scene. In the middle of an active volcano with churning lava and spewing fires was a raised circle of stone.
The circle of stone itself was about a foot wide and 50 yards in diameter, with sheer cliffs falling away into fire and molten lava on the outside as well as on the inside.
Seeing this, the rabbi stood riveted, for walking that narrow stone circle in never-ending fear and weariness were his beloved villagers. Exhausted heads bent with eyes watching each careful step, they moved in continuously, trapped on their narrow ledge, propelled by their own fear and the fear of those behind and in front.
Horrified, the rabbi watched, unable to reach his people, unable to help or touch them.
Finally, he perceived a lessening in the roar of the fires and he realized he could shout perhaps one phrase this very minute, two or three words to help his congregants who could drop from exhaustion at any time. If they fell from the circle, they would die in the flame. The rabbi drew in his breath, and cupping his hands around his mouth he shouted the only three words he think of to save his people.
YOU CAN FLY.