#186 (s5761-33/16 Iyar 5761)

The Baal Shem Tov's Lag B'Omer Parade

They protested, whereupon the Baal Shem Tov explained to them that it was the holy day of Lag b'Omer


The Baal Shem Tov's Lag B'Omer Parade

Two weeks before Rosh HaShanah in 1734, on his 36th birthday, Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov was revealed as the holiest man on the planet and the leader of the fledgling chassidic movement. Before that, he devoted effort to keep his special qualities well hidden from the public eye. He dressed, spoke and carried himself like every other simple uneducated poor Jew in the Ukraine. To support himself he worked as a plain laborer. His intense prayers, his meditation, his deep Torah study, were all carried out in secret. In conversation with other Jews he would often encourage them with teachings and stories from the Midrash and Talmud that stressed the value of serving G-d simply but wholeheartedly. He strove to nourish in them a love for G-d, for Torah, and for the entire Jewish people. But when he did so it was always in the language and idiom of the common people. No one suspected him of being more than he appeared. Only his wife knew who he really was.

Sometimes it happened that he would be forced to utilize his extraordinary powers to save Jews or even whole communities in distress. Whenever he did so, as soon as the time of need ended, he would immediately move to a new and distant location where nobody knew him. One of these occasions took place on Lag b'Omer.

In those days Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were often subject to attack by wild bands of violent Cossacks, and other such coarse anti-Semites. They would beat Jewish men, sometimes even fatally, rape the women and plunder or destroy whatever Jewish property they could get their hands on. Once the town that the Baal Shem Tov was living in received word that such a gang of evil marauders was headed their way. The entire Jewish community decided to abandon their homes and hide in the hills for a few days, until the invading Cossacks would calm down and leave. The Baal Shem Tov accompanied them. The people took refuge in the numerous caves that dotted the rugged terrain.

From their lookout places they could see that the Cossack horde had arrived. Unable to find any Jews to physically assault, they vented their anger and frustration on Jewish property. They broke into the warehouse of wine, drank themselves into a state of crazed drunkenness, smashed the rest of the barrels and set fire to the building. The watching Jews all trembled in fear that the cruel Cossacks would decide to search the hills and their hiding places would be discovered.

A few days went by. The invaders stacked piles of plunder that they looted from Jewish homes and stores. The Jews were still terrified of discovery. How startled they were to see that the nondescript 'Yisroelik' was assembling groups of the children outside of the caves, in broad daylight!

They protested, whereupon the Baal Shem Tov explained to them that it was the holy day of Lag b'Omer, a day to be outside in the fields, joyously celebrating the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He assured them that not only would they not be endangered, but that the merit of their Lag b'Omer observance would help to protect and rescue the entire community.

Somehow his enthusiasm and conviction affected the nervous parents, and they gave their permission. The Baal Shem Tov went from cave to cave, and gathered nearly all the children.

While many of the adults were still mulling over this startling turn of events, the Baal Shem Tov launched his mini parade. The children marched along singing happily, as they followed their newly charismatic leader. At first they were a bit afraid and sang only in whispers and low voices, but in just a short time their fear melted away as they raised their voices to join in the infectiously cheerful tunes of the day honoring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

The parents gazed after their children with nervous affection, but their attention soon whipped to the Baal Shem Tov. It was as if he was a person they had never seen before. His face flamed with rapture as he sang. All his movements reflected ecstasy in the Divine as he danced with the circle of children. The simple Yisroelik that they knew had been transformed in their eyes to the holiest of men. His voice combined with those of the pure innocent children to produce singing that seemed to be no less than that of the angels in Heaven.

The parade and the singing continued for a long time. Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov led the children to a small plateau, sat them on the grass, and distributed to each of them the food treats that he had brought with him. He made sure that each child pronounced loudly the correct blessing for the food that he had received. Then, after they had eaten, he told them riveting stories from the Talmud and the Midrash about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and about Rabbi Akiva. The children listened with rapt attention. They felt the powerful love the Baal Shem Tov had for each of them and they responded to him with great affection.

The parents and the other adults from the village remained greatly worried. How could Yisroelik stay so long in the open with their children? Their frightened glances switched rapidly back and forth from the smoke and fury in the village below to the rows of children seated in front of the Baal Shem Tov. They whispered prayers that all should end well and that everyone would be safe.

Suddenly they saw the Cossock gang rush from the village and scatter in every direction, running with all their might. They left so suddenly that they didn't stop to take anything with them, abandoning all of their piles of plunder. At first the Jews were afraid that the crazed invaders were searching for them again, but the speed with which the enemy disappeared from the vicinity soon calmed their fear. Soon after, all the Jews returned to their village. The danger was over!

Eventually, they were able to clarify what had happened. Somehow the desperados had found out-or thought they had found out-that a troop of government soldiers was rapidly approaching in their direction. Frightened, they fled for their lives, abandoning everything that might slow down their flight.

The Jews returned to their homes with happy strides, amazed by the miracle that had taken place for them. They knew without doubt that the miracle occurred in the merit of the joyous celebration of their children with the heretofore hidden mystic, the Baal Shem Tov-who had already moved away! -in honor of the great sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on his day of joy, Lag b'Omer.

[Translated and freely adapted by Yrachmiel Tilles from Sichat HaShavua #176.]

Biographical Notes:
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 Shimon Bar Yochai, one of the most important sages in Jewish history, lived over 1800 years ago. Teachings in his name abound throughout the Mishnah, Talmud, and Midrashim, while the Zohar, the primary source text of Kabbalah, is built around Rabbi Shimon's revelations to his inner circle of disciples. During the hours before his passing, on Lag b'Omer, he disclosed the "most sublime" secrets of Torah, in order to ensure that the day would always be an occasion for great joy, untouched by sadness because of the Omer period and mourning for him. The seminal importance of the Zohar in Jewish thought and the annual pilgrimage to Meron on Lag b"Omer are testimonies to his success. (For more information on Lag b'Omer, please visit our website-address above).


Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories to his credit.

A 48 page soft-covered booklet containing eleven of his most popular stories may be ordered on our store site.

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