awoke from his sleep" (Gen. 28:16) - Do not read mishnato, from
his sleep, but mimishnato, from his meditation on the Torah
The well known Torah scholar, Rabbi Dovid of Nikolayev, once
encountered an old friend from his youth, who demanded to know what
had decided him to be a follower of the Baal Shem Tov.
Reb Dovid related the following:
I heard of the Baal Shem Tov and was interested to investigate what
he had to offer. I went to visit him, but I did not find what I was
looking for. The Chasidim there influenced me to stay a little longer.
They told me that if I would remain until Shabbos, and make the effort
on Friday afternoon to be in his presence when he recited Song of
Songs, I would find what I sought. I changed my travel plans, and
the Chasidim helped me to arrange what they had suggested. Well! I
certainly heard something that was sublime and a delight to the ears.
I even sensed that his words set up a clamor in all the supernal worlds!
But still, he did not capture me.
The Chasidim then urged me to wait until the eve of the day on which
the rebbe observed yahrzeit after one of his parents. That
is when he would pace around his room all night long, and recite the
entire Mishna by heart. This would undoubtedly captivate me. I stayed
on, and that night hid in his room. What I saw was truly extraordinary.
But still, I felt this wasn't it.
Then the Chasidim insisted that I should wait until the following
night, when after a full-day fast, he would invite his elder disciples
for a mystic meal. At that meal, they assured me, it was impossible
that he should not draw out my soul. They also forewarned me earnestly
that I must make sure not to fall asleep there, because for some reason
slumber often overcame those who participated. I napped during the
day and utilized other methods in order to ensure that I would not
fall asleep at the table.
I was assigned a place at the gathering. The Baal Shem Tov sat at
the head of the table. Surrounded by his Chasidim, he began to expound
upon the kabbalistic meditations that accompany the ritual immersion
in the mikveh.
"But Rebbe," one of his Chasidim called out to him; "Does
not the holy Ari of Safed, of sainted memory, explain these meditations
The Baal Shem Tov threw his head back. His face, which had been like
a fiery flame, suddenly grew pale. His eyes bulged. He looked like
one not in this world. At that moment I was overcome by a deep slumber,
despite all my efforts to ward it off. In my sleep I saw myself in
an unknown city. People were hurrying in one direction. I asked them
where they hastened so urgently, and they told me that The Baal Shem
Tov was soon to deliver a discourse, and they were eager to hear it.
I ran with them, until we came to an imposing edifice, inside which
stood two chairs.
"Who is the young man in the second chair?" I asked.
"That is the Ari of Tsfat," I was told.
I managed to stand near the chair of The Baal Shem Tov, who soon
began to expound the kabbalistic meditations of the mikveh. When he
had completed his discourse the Ari challenged him with a series of
questions, each of which the Baal Shem Tov answered. Finally it was
clear that the Ari accepted the Baal Shem Tov's position as correct
for the times that he lived in.
At that point I awoke, and saw that I still sat at the table with
the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. The color was returning to his
face, and it was becoming fiery once more. Again he began to deliver
the discourse on the meditations of the mikveh, and again the same
disciple asked him: "Rebbe! Does not the Ari explain otherwise?"
The Baal Shem Tov turned to me, and said, "David! Stand up and
testify as to what you have seen!"
At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov captured my soul.
Abridged, adapted and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from A
Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll).
The friend who heard this report, Reb Meir, went to the Baal Shem
Tov, and in due course became one of his outstanding disciples. His
great-grandson, Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, was such an outstanding
chassid of the first three Lubavitcher Rebbes, that the Tsemech Tsedek
(the third rebbe) testified, "Reb Hillel is himself half a Rebbe."
Another editor's note: Nikolayev is also where the
Lubavitcher Rebbe of our generation was born, in 1902. His father,
Levi Yitzchak Shneerson, was the Chief Rabbi there.
Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov ["master of the good Name"],
a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic
movement and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on
his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He passed away on the festival of
Shavuot in 1760. 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.
Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-5 Av 1572), Known as "the
holy Ari," revolutionized the study of Kabbalah and its integration
into mainstream Judaism during the two years he spent in Tsfat before
his death at 38. Much of Chasidic thought is based on the Ari's teachings,
as recorded by his main disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital.