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The Synchronous Universe of the Baal Shem Tov

The Synchronous Universe of the Baal Shem Tov


There is one radical teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that may also be the most traditional: He believed in a G‑d that is here now.

In the pirouettes of a nondescript leaf falling from some lonely tree, in the puff of a sudden breeze on a summer's day, in every sight that could be seen or sound that could be heard, the Baal Shem Tov perceived the Infinite, the Unknowable. "G‑dliness is everything," he taught, "and everything is G‑dliness."1

Many a scholarly mind of his day found the notion absurd. That G‑d cared about the righteous deeds of those who feared Him and did His will, that they understood. That He could be found in the synagogue and the study hall, yes, this was certainly true. But why on earth would a great and mighty G‑d care about the mundane details of the scholar's life, never mind of a simple person, and who could speak of a fallen leaf in some forsaken forest?

G‑d knows all, this no one argued. He creates all things and sustains them continually, that too was accepted. But He must do it from afar, they said, and so too, His providence is from afar. For He is the Ohr Ein Sof, the Infinite Light, transcendent of even the most spiritual realms. To place Him within the creation itself, within any worldly activity, is to equate Him with the finitude of His own creation.

The Baal Shem Tov was not denigrating G‑d, but lifting Him far beyond our petty anthropomorphismsAnd yet, the Baal Shem Tov had the sacred texts on his side. Such as the psalms of David: "He covers the heavens with clouds, prepares rain for the earth, causes the mountains to sprout grass. He provides the animal its food, to the fledgling ravens that for which they cry."2

Or clear statements of the Talmud, such as: "Rabbi Yochanan, upon seeing a pelican would recite the verse, 'Your judgements are over the great depths!'" ("For you prepared a pelican to carry out your justice upon the fish of the sea, to kill those that are meant to die."—Rashi)3

Or, as explicit as one could possibly be, from the prophet Jeremiah: "Says G‑d: Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?"4

In truth, the Baal Shem Tov was not denigrating G‑d, but quite the contrary, he was lifting Him far beyond our petty anthropomorphisms. We human beings are defined by that in which we invest ourselves. Engaged in little things, we become little; engaged in greater things, we become great. We ponder mathematics and we are mathematicians; give us a garden to supervise, we are now gardeners.

But He Who is Infinite in the most absolute sense, He is capable of transcending all bounds—including those of transcendence itself. He can be found within the finely measured movements of a wind-blown blade of grass, within the hungry cry of the fledgling raven, within the sudden swoop and catch of the pelican, within the chaotic pattering of rain upon a roof, within even the free choice of human beings—and yet remain entirely transcendent and undefined by any of these, the Infinite pulsating within a finite world.

"He grasps all," the Zohar says, "but nothing grasps Him."5 The Baal Shem Tov would elaborate: "He encompasses the nature of each thing, yet nothing encompasses and defines Him."

From Heaven Exposed by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. For bio, info and more articles by this author, click here. To order Tzvi's books, click here.
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Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW New City, NY November 7, 2014

Immanence “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with G-d..." -- Elizabeth Barrett Browning Reply

Tzvi Freeman April 20, 2013

Re: citation Thank you, Derrick, for pointing that out. I've added a footnote with a citation to Keter Shem Tov, 395. Reply

Derrick Miller ypsilanti April 19, 2013

citation Where did you find what the Baal Shem Tov actually said? I know you quote from the Zohar and Psalms etc..... Reply

Anonymous December 28, 2012

I am in tears I have jut found your words Baal Shem Tov.They are beautiful. May G-d bless you. thank you. Reply

Anonymous Deal, UK April 15, 2012

You and I andFalling leaf with every speck of dust, moon, star and galaxies exist to shout, sing and manifest the glory of G-d.. Reply

Dave Brooklyn, NY August 28, 2010

G-d as a personal object? the Baal Shem Tov saw G-d as a personal G-d?
for whom? the leaf? since when did rabbi freeman meet a talking leaf? Reply

Anonymous Skokie, IL August 27, 2010

symatics pantheism would be Spinoza whereas panentheisim would be the Bal Shem Tov, Maharal, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev... that's my understanding anyway. Reply

Shahid August 27, 2010

Beautiful! This is beautiful! Reply

Chanoch Miami Beach, FL May 16, 2010

Bal Shem Tov The wonderment of the Bal Shem Tov can be taken to heart in a number of ways. To me, he represents a "knowing" not bound by the need to halachically "justify" an action or position which represents love. Similarly, his healing ability should be recognized as his understanding and harnessing the unlimited energy of G-d represented by the "LIGHT" the ohr of the first day. His healing and energetic abilities did not require the "formality and societal" definition. He just knew G-d and worked out the rest...with joy and freedom....a walk in the woods anyone? Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman May 16, 2010

Re: Spinoza The similarity is only that they share a monistic view of the universe as one with its Maker, which stands in contrast to common Christian dualism of G-d and world as entirely separate from one another. Yet this sort of monism is the standard in Jewish (and Moslem) tradition. To paraphrase Maimonides, "G-d is the form of the world, and matter cannot exist without form." Certainly, the writings of the Kabbalists emphasize a monistic cosmology.

The article clearly distinguishes the Baal Shem Tov's conception from pantheism. by describing how G-d is not defined by His creation. Aside from this, Spinoza's conceived G-d as an entirely impersonal object. Reply

Danny Shanok Somerset, NJ May 14, 2010

The clarity of Baal Shem Tov Does this seem accurate?

The coment, "G_D is everything, Everything is G_D" reflects understanding : Adonai Echod. There is one-ness of the universe that IS G_D.

Contrast with David's many comments in the Psalms. Akk if them refer to THINGS. I wonder if David ever felt/experienced/immersed himself and LOST himself (his self) in Hashem?

Yochanan seemed to ge it.. and expressed it vaguely through referring to the expression of G_D through the dynamics of nature (the Pelican who fulfills the judgements of what shall live and what shall go back into G_D's body. Reply

Chanoch Miami Beach, FL May 13, 2010

Bal Shem Tov Rv. Freeman, and G-d bless you for your insights and loving expressions. Chag Sameiach. It is wonderous how free you can be in channeling the knowledge, spirit and love of the Bal Shem Tov.
Todah, Shalom. Reply

Michal May 13, 2010

He encompasses the nature of each thing... ...yet nothing encompasses and defines Him.
Thank you so much, Rabbi Freeman, that you wrote this. And I am thankful about everything the Baal Shem Tov said. Yes, I know, G-d is very near to me and I love Him, although I am not a Scholar, and not in any way important. Nor did I deserve it for any reason. And yet, G-d cares for me. He cares for the important and the unimportant human beings. You reminded me of something I somehow knew already. To read it in your article moved me to tears. Tears of happiness.
Be blessed for all you do in His service!!!
(And with you, the whole Chabad-family!)
I wish you a happy Shavuot! Reply

Shimon ben Yisrael st louis, MO May 13, 2010

The Ball SHem Tov's vision seems to me and I don't mean to be deemed disrespectful or worse, as so similar to that of Baruch Spinoza, that I always wondered if there were some unknown, at least to me connection. Reply

Learn about the life and teachings of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the 18th century mystic who permanently changed the Jewish landscape.
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