Two weeks before Rosh Hashanah in 1734, on his 36th birthday, Rabbi Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov, was revealed as an extraordinarily holy person and the leader of the fledgling Chassidic movement. Before that, he devoted himself to keeping 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 and 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 his capabilities.
Sometimes it happened that he would be forced to use 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 BaOmer.
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 where the Baal Shem Tov was living 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.
It was the holy day of Lag BaOmer . . .
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 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 up piles of booty looted from Jewish homes and stores. The Jews were still terrified of being discovered. How startled they were to see that the nondescript Yisroelik (a nickname for Israel, the Baal Shem Tov’s name) was assembling groups of their 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 BaOmer, 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 BaOmer 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.
All his movements reflected ecstasy in the Divine, as he danced with the circle of children . . .
While many of the adults were still mulling over this startling turn of events, the Baal Shem Tov launched a mini-parade. The children marched along, singing happily, as they followed their new 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, and 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 into the holiest of men. His voice combined with those of the pure innocent children to produce singing that seemed to be no less awesome than that of the angels in Heaven.
Suddenly, they saw the Cossack gang rush from the village and scatter in every direction . . .
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 desserts that he had brought with him. He made sure that each child pronounced loudly the correct blessing for the food that he 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 attentively and felt the powerful love the Baal Shem Tov had for each of them, responding with great affection.
The parents and the other adults from the village remained very 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 Cossack 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 their massive 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 hooligans had found out—or thought they had found out—that a troop of government soldiers was rapidly approaching in their direction. Frightened, they had 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 their children’s joyous celebration in honor of the great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his day of joy, Lag BaOmer, with the heretofore hidden mystic, the Baal Shem Tov—who had already disappeared to another location.
Adapted from Sichat HaShavua issue 176.