Updated: Feb 1, 2021
The Ba’al Shem Tov is the founder and central figure of Chassidism. He’s been known for his extreme piety, holiness and power of prayer to effect great salvations. Despite the rift between Chassidim and Mitnagdim, he was nevertheless respected by people of all groups, especially after his passing. Since then, the number of his followers only grew and today he serves as inspiration for millions of Jews and non-Jews of all stripes.
While the Ba’al Shem Tov himself wrote little, his disciples recorded many of his teachings and meditative techniques. The two main books where they appear are the Keter Shem Tov (Crown of the Good Name) and Tzava’at HaRivash (Testament of Rabbenu Yisrael Ba’al Shem). In this article we will dive into some of the fascinating teachings of this very important Tzaddik for all generations.
One major idea that the Ba’al Shem Tov expanded and emphasized very much is that of Dvekut (bonding) with Hashem. Dvekut means to be consciously aware of the Creator, no matter where you are and what you do. In the second teaching of Tzava’at HaRivash, the Ba’al Shem Tov brings the Pasuk “Shiviti Y-H-V-H Lenegdi Tamid” (I placed Y-H-V-H before me always). It means we should envision the letters Y-H-V-H in our eyes at every possible moment, and have the fear of Hashem in our hearts constantly.
Doing this can have incredible purifying effects and bring us much closer to Hashem. A person who does this is much less likely to sin than had he not been doing that. But the Ba’al Shem Tov goes deeper and teaches us that the word “Shiviti” (I placed) can be read as reaching the state of “Hishtavut” (equanimity or stoicism, for lack of a better term). In a deeper sense, a person should see all things in life as equally directed by Hashem and not care whether his clothes or food are fancy or not (provided they are respectable and kosher). This detachment to materiality is crucial for spiritual ascension and can indeed be achieved by even simple people.
This follows teaching 9, which he stressed the importance of doing everything with Zerizut (alacrity), not to waste time and that our thoughts should always be on the upper worlds. We can appreciate a little bit by now the exhalted level to which the Ba’al Shem Tov aspired for his students!
As we spoke in another article, the Ba’al Shem Tov also taught that a person should invest all his force in every word of prayer, as if he could almost feel himself faint. He said that it is in fact a great act of lovingkindness from Hashem that some people are alive after praying, as He gives us strength to finish our service.
In fact, in teaching 23, he tells us a person should have in mind only the intention to give “Nachat Ruach” (pleasing spirit, pleasure one gets from his children) to Hashem. This is a stern warning to people aspiring great levels like Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. A person should strive as much as he can, but not to expect to “reach levels”, because that depends on Hashem and can bring to haughtiness.
One very fascinating point he makes is that whatever thoughts that come to a person who’s praying (especially the Amidah) are fallen sparks that need to be rectified. When someone is disturbed by foreign thoughts he should “elevate” them to their source above.
As we know, there are 7 main sources for fallen emotions according to the 7 holy Sephirot of the upper worlds. They are Chessed (lovingkindness), Gevurah (might), Tiferet (beauty), Netzach (victory), Hod (splendor), Yesod (foundation) and Malkhut (kingship).
When someone feels stinginess in his thoughts while praying, that is a clear indication he has in himself fallen sparks from the Sephirah of Chessed. When he feels lustful thoughts, it can be either from the Sephirah of Tiferet or Yesod. One needs to know the source of his thoughts to elevate them and, if he doesn’t know, he should pray that Hashem should help him.
While these rungs can be truly and out of our reach, it’s important to realise that life goes in cycles. In teaching 32, we learn that sometimes a person can only serve Hashem in Katnut (“smallness”), which is a constricted mentality. But we should also remember that this is temporary.
In any case, we shouldn’t despair, as right afterwards, he teaches us that a person can break this state by thinking deeply about the upper worlds and, wherever a person’s thoughts are, that’s where he is!
May we all merit these awesome levels!
For the Book fully in English:
This article was written and published in the zechut of all Emuna Builder Partners. May they have complete emuna and continue spreading emuna!