Weekly Chasidic Story #862 (s5774-40 / 4 Sivan 5774)

After the Baal Shem Tov

In the last summer of his life,the Baal Shem Tov wrote to an intimate disciple to inform him "in utmost secrecy" who should be his successor.

Connection: Seasonal--Shavuot is the 254th yahrzeit of the Besht


After the Baal Shem Tov

Early Wednesday morning the first day of Shavuot 5520 (1760), with Rabbi Dov Ber and other disciples at this side, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov passed away in Medzibezh at the age of sixty-one years, eight months and eighteen days.

The succession to the seat of the Baal Shem Tov posed a problem. The master had not designated a successor in his will. Each of the disciples had his own sphere in which he excelled, but the situation called for someone with over-all qualifications.

There was but one revelation relating to the succession, albeit secret and private. In the last summer of his life, in the year 5559 (1759), the Baal Shem Tov wrote to his intimate disciple Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polnoy to inform him

"…in utmost secrecy…that my place shall be filled by my saintly disciple, the Prince of Torah, Rabbi Ber but this is to remain hidden and concealed…"

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov referred here to a matter of fact, i.e., that ultimately Rabbi Dov Ber would be his successor. It was not a will or an order, but private information conveyed in trust to Rabbi Jacob Joseph and not to be revealed to others. The succession had to be resolved by itself in order to preserve the structure and propagation of Chassidism.

The disciples appointed Rabbi Tzvi, the only son of the Baal Shem Tov, to succeed his father even while assigning certain organizational tasks unto different members of their group. This appointment was as much a temporary compromise as an act of piety and posthumous respect to the great master. Rabbi Tzvi was an interim leader only. His leadership was not a reign but regency. In spite of his personal merits, Rabbi Tzvi was not the right man. He did not have the personality and qualifications required for that taxing office in those crucial times when the very life of the movement hung in the balance. Moreover, he could not possibly overlook the strict advice of his father who two years earlier cautioned him

"..for G-d's sake, Heaven forefend that you should occupy yourself with Rabbanuth (leadership); pursue but business and therein you shall thrive and succeed. Remember, just remember, how I told you already that ever since that bitter day on which I was revealed I have cried daily over my bitter lot. If I had not been pressed from Heaven…"

Rabbi Tzvi's term in office lasted for one year. For Shavuoth 5521 (1761) the Baal Shem Tov's senior disciples gathered in Medzibezh to observe together the first anniversary of their master's passing.

On the second day of the festival Rabbi Tzvi sat as usual at the head of the table and delivered a Torah-discourse. Immediately upon concluding he rose and said:

"Today my father appeared to me and informed me that the Shechinah and Heavenly assembly that used to be with him 'have gone over this day to Rabbi Dov Ber; therefore my son, transfer to him the leadership in the presence of the Chevraya Kadisha (Holy Society). Let him sit in my place at the head of the table and you, my son, sit in his place.'"

Rabbi Tzvi then removed his white robe, the robe which had belonged to his father and symbolized the office of leadership, and he placed it upon the shoulders of Rabbi Dov Ber while wishing him success in his new task.

A later Chassidic sage, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch, made the following comment: "To act as Rabbi Tzvi did, one truly needs extraordinary strength; for we find various Tannaim and Amoraim who did not wish to accept a high office, but once they accepted…"

The Maggid ascended to the head of the table and while his colleagues around him stood to listen he delivered his first discourse as head of the Chassidic movement. It was an exegesis on the cryptic verse "And their appearance and their work was as though it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel." (Ezekiel I:16)

A Chassidic tradition has it that eight months before his passing, on Hoshana Rabbah 5520, Rabbi Israel foretold a group of his disciples that he would not survive that year and consequently they should seek a new master for themselves. That particular group, still young apprentices, suggested the name of a certain saint and the Baal Shem Tov advised them: "Go to him and test him. Ask him to show you the way to rid yourselves of pride. If he will suggest to you a way to do so, know that he is not the right man; but if he will exclaim "may G-d help" then attach yourselves to him…"
In this context, it is told that some disciples approached the Maggid with the question 'how does one break the trait of pride,' and he answered them:

"The attribute of pride belongs unto the blessed Creator, as it is written 'the Eternal reigneth, he is garbed in gey'uth (majesty, excellence, but may also mean pride)'. Thus there is no way one can uproot this attribute, and as it appears within us we must battle it all the days of our lives until the last clot of earth has been thrown on the grave."

Quite understandably it was not easy for the elder disciples to simply accept and quickly adjust to the new leadership in Mezhirech. After all, as we have seen, Rabbi Dov Ber was a late-comer to the court of the Baal Shem Tov. He was in contact with the master for barely eight years while others had spent many more years in close and special proximity to the Baal Shem Tov. Within a short time, however, he was able to consolidate his leadership, fully and effectively, and his fame and success spread far and wide.

At first there were some strained relationships, especially as the Maggid's reign ushered in a new period in the history of Chassidism with somewhat different ways and emphases as well as a number of significant innovations, but ultimately all, including and especially his senior colleagues, recognized and acknowledged the Maggid as the official successor and true spokesman and representative for the Chassidic movement as a whole.

[Source: Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from The Great Maggid (Kehot) by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, pp. 87-93.]

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458- 6 Sivan 5520 (Sept. 1698 - June 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov ["master of the good Name"-often referred to as "the Besht" for short], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734 C.E.). He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos. See also: //baalshemtov.com.
Rabbi Dov Ber [of blessed memory: c.5460 - 19 Kislev 5533 (c.1700- Dec. 1772 C.E.)], the son of Avraham and Chava, known as the Maggid of Mezritch, succeeded his master, the Baal Shem Tov, as the head of the Chasidic movement. Most of the leading chasidic dynasties stem from his disciples and his descendents. The classic anthologies of his teachings are Likutei Amarim and Torah Ohr (combined by Kehas Publishing as Maggid Devorav l'Yaakov), and Ohr HaEmmes.

Connection: Seasonal--Shavuot is the 254th yahrzeit of the Besht


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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