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Chapter Two: Reb Mordechai and the Baal Shem Tov

Chapter Two: Reb Mordechai and the Baal Shem Tov

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Some years later, for certain reasons, Reb Mordechai was living in far-away Podolia. There, he heard rumor of the great miracle-worker who lived nearby, whose fame as a great scholar and kabbalist had spread throughout the region. Being a great scholar and kabbalist himself, Reb Mordechai desired to visit the famous Baal Shem Tov.

When he arrived at the Baal Shem Tov’s court, he remained for a long time. He was grateful to G‑d for giving him the good sense to come to the Baal Shem Tov. He was, however, distressed that he did not know where his two childhood companions — Reb Yissachar Ber and Reb Chayim — were. If only he knew where they were, he would inform them of his whereabouts, about the great Torah insights that he was privileged to hear, and the paths of avodah and worship of the Creator that he had been privileged to witness.

Once, the Baal Shem Tov delivered a teaching based on the verse,1 “If you see the donkey (chamor) of your adversary collapsing under its burden, and you hesitate to assist him, you must surely assist him.” [The Baal Shem Tov explained]:

The body is material substance (chomer), but the soul is pure form. The body is attracted to material matters, while the soul is attracted to spiritual matters.

G‑d created the body out of material substance with the intention that the physical matter be made into a receptacle for G‑dliness. This is the “burden” that the body bears.

“If you see” — if you carefully contemplate the “donkey” — the material substance of the body, which is called a “donkey2“ because it is unrefined and indifferent to abstract, intellectual concerns — you will realize two things:

[first], your own chomer is “your adversary,” because it is attracted to material things and is repelled by the spiritual nature of the soul;

[second], the chamor is “collapsing under its burden” — it is idle in implementing the G‑dly mission for which it was created.

As a result, you may “hesitate to assist him” — you may refrain from assisting the chomer in carrying out the Divine plan. What does this mean? That the body is chomer and has no choice but to eat, sleep, and attend to other bodily needs; but all this must be done as avodah, not the way a chamor does it.

But when you see that the chomer is “your adversary,” and is “collapsing under its burden,” you may be unwilling to assist it; instead you will undertake a program of fasting and self-mortification in an attempt to break the chomer.

This way is not the Torah way, for the Torah forbids breaking one’s body through fasting and self-mortification, but instead requires that “you must surely assist him” — you must allow the chomer to remain with the body, and work jointly with the body until it is no longer a chamor.

One must have mesirus nefesh to do a favor for even a single Jew in material matters, and especially in spiritual matters.

A soul descends to this world and lives for seventy or eighty years or more, to do a favor for even a single Jew.

Reb Mordechai repeated this Torah to himself numerous times, and then meditated deeply about it, thinking to himself: “The Rebbe says that breaking one’s body through fasting and self-mortification is not the Torah way. The Torah way is to transform the body, and to assist it in carrying out the intent for which G‑d created it.

“One must have mesirus nefesh to do a favor for even a single Jew in material matters, and especially in spiritual matters.”

The more Reb Mordechai contemplated these words, the more he began to think about his old friends Reb Yissachar Ber and Reb Chayim. He really ought to find out where they were, and inform them of the new path being taught by the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov. He realized that to find his companions, he himself would have to travel to the villages around Mohilev. But how could he possibly leave the Rebbe?

He thought about this for many weeks, but was unable to bring himself to part from the Rebbe. Once, when Reb Mordechai debated with himself about his lack of resolve to leave the Rebbe and seek out his friends, his argument went like this: “Who knows where they are now? And suppose I do manage to find them, who knows what they are up to these days? And suppose I tell them, but they don’t want to hear about it, or even laugh at me.”

Reb Mordechai remembered well his own reaction upon his arrival in Podolia, when he heard tales about a miracle-worker called the Baal Shem Tov — first a melamed’s assistant, a crude individual dressed as a common person. Later, he had earned his living by digging sand and clay, that he delivered to town. Eventually, he had stripped off his common clothing and removed the crude disguise, revealing himself to be a great Torah scholar, kabbalist and miracle-worker.

At first, Reb Mordechai had been reluctant to believe these things; nevertheless, out of curiosity he went to see for himself what everyone was marveling at. He remembered well that on his way to the Rebbe he had laughed at himself, “How did this happen? A person such as I, a great Torah scholar with broad knowledge of Kabbalah, taking to the road just because he heard some popular folk tales?”

Now, even assuming that after much toil and hardship he managed to find his friends, they would undoubtedly laugh at him, and he would accomplish nothing with them. He would not be doing them a favor; and he would be doing the greatest harm to himself by going away from the Rebbe. On the other hand, the Rebbe said that “One must have mesirus nefesh to do a favor for even a single Jew in material matters, and especially in spiritual matters.” So where was his own mesirus nefesh? If the Rebbe says that one must have mesirus nefesh then it must be so. And what greater mesirus nefesh can there be than going away from the Rebbe?

He nearly resolved to begin the journey and seek his friends, but somehow he was unable to do so. He could not bring himself to undertake the actual departure. He decided that would remain with the Rebbe for just a few more days, and then he would go.

After a few days, he conceived the idea of going in to the Rebbe, telling him the whole story, and asking his advice. Certainly, the Rebbe knew by means of ruach hakodesh where his companions were now. If the Rebbe told him this, it would save him much time, enabling him to return that much sooner.

At first, Reb Mordechai liked this idea, but upon further reflection he decided against it. Exactly what was he planning to ask the Rebbe — whether he should be willing to do a favor for his friends? Hadn’t the Rebbe explicitly said that “One must have mesirus nefesh to do a favor for even a single Jew in material matters, and especially in spiritual matters”? So why ask?

But the Rebbe could tell him where they were.

Well, that would be the greatest impertinence on his part — asking the Rebbe to use ruach hakodesh just to spare Reb Mordechai some inconvenience! Furthermore, if Reb Mordechai knew in advance where they were, then his mesirus nefesh would be less. No — he would not ask; he made the decision to take to the road and seek his companions. He would discuss with them the great path of Divine service that he had learned from the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov.

He rose very early, prepared himself for prayer, and davened. After davening, he got ready for his trip. He debated whether to go to the Rebbe and request permission to depart and receive a blessing. He could think of reasons why he should, and reasons why he shouldn’t. In the end, he decided that in spite of the halachic requirement to obtain permission [from one’s master before departing], he would not do so.

Suppose the Rebbe asked him where he was going, and why. Reb Mordechai was reluctant to discuss this. If the Rebbe knew it by himself, there was no need to tell him; on the other hand, if he didn’t know, Reb Mordechai was disinclined to tell him. He took up the bag containing his belongings and his tallis and tefillin, and began the journey.

Reb Mordechai had already passed the city limits when the Rebbe’s attendant overtook him with the message that the Rebbe had sent for him. When he entered the Baal Shem Tov’s room, the Baal Shem Tov said to him:

Thank G‑d, you were victorious in your battle with yourself. Do not hurry during your journey, for you can accomplish much before reaching your final destination.

To Reb Yissachar Ber, say that if he comes to me I will give him a program of study that will expand his intellectual capacities.

To Reb Chayim, say that if he comes to me I will give him a program of study of Zohar and Medrash that will expand his emotional capacities.

You, I bless with perfection in your avodah with both mind and heart. Be careful not to reveal your greatness. May G‑d grant you success, so that all the blessings and promises come true.

For over half a year Reb Mordechai wandered from village to village before arriving in Kabilnik, Reb Yissachar Ber’s birthplace. There he discovered that Reb Yissachar Ber was long gone; he had married into a family from the village of Lubavitch many years earlier.

Reb Mordechai set out for Lubavitch, traveling leisurely from village to village as before, careful to obey the Rebbe’s instructions not to hurry. In every village and rural settlement through which Reb Mordechai passed, he related that in Podolia-Vohlynia there was a great Torah scholar, a miracle-worker known throughout the region as the Baal Shem Tov. He told many tales and described many miracles, which his audiences listened to in amazement.

When Reb Mordechai arrived in the village of Kochenov, he happened to notice a certain lad among the yeshivah bochurim studying in the beis hamedrash. The bochur was fifteen or sixteen years old, and had a very familiar face and mannerisms, but Reb Mordechai was absolutely unable to recall where and when he had seen this face and these gestures before. When he engaged the bochur in conversation and heard his voice, and observed the vehement gesticulations that accompanied his speech, Reb Mordechai became more convinced that this was someone he had once known; but he could not say where or when.

Reb Mordechai began to question the bochur about his whereabouts before coming to the Kochenover yeshivah. How long had he been in Kochenov? What was his hometown? Reb Mordechai suspected that he might have seen this lad a few years earlier, while traveling near Kiev. The bochur replied that he had spent the two years before his Bar Mitzvah in Krupke, where he had studied under his uncle, the village melamed; then he had come to the Kochenover Yeshivah, where he had been for three years. His hometown was Dubravna.

The bochur began speaking about his studies — the questions that he had posed to the Rosh Yeshivah, what the Rosh Yeshivah had answered, and how he had refuted the Rosh Yeshivah’s response. He spoke concisely and clearly, but quite heatedly. His train of logic was quick, not unduly profound, and very lively. Immediately, Reb Mordechai had a flashback — this was just the way his friend Reb Chayim had looked, back in the days when they had studied together at the yeshivah in Smorgon.

He called to mind the nicknames by which they had been known in the yeshivah: Chayim Mazierer, Berel Kabilniker, and Mottel Bayever. He asked the bochur where his father was, what his name was, and what he did for a living. The bochur replied that his father now lived in Dubravna, where he was called Reb Chayim Resasner. His father was a storekeeper, but the shop was run mostly by his mother; his father sat in the beis hamedrash and studied.

Reb Mordechai departed Kochenov for Lubavitch to look for Reb Yissachar Ber. On the road, he met up with several foot travelers, many of them beggars. As they were all walking together, Reb Mordechai noticed that one of the beggars seemed particularly unfortunate; he wore tattered clothing, spoke not a word, and carried a large sack on his shoulder. As he strode along, he constantly moved his lips, as though whispering something.

They arrived at an inn just as it was time to daven Minchah, when the beggar suddenly disappeared; Reb Mordechai never saw him again. This struck Reb Mordechai as mysterious, and he regretted not having engaged the beggar in conversation, and found out who he was and where he came from. Who knows? Perhaps this beggar was one of the Rebbe’s secret associates.

While at the Baal Shem Tov’s court, Reb Mordechai had become aware that the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, had companions from the old days, from before he had revealed himself as a Baal Shem. These associates of the Baal Shem Tov were hidden tzaddikim, who traveled about dressed as simple folk, and sometimes disguised themselves as beggars who wandered from place to place. The Baal Shem Tov also instructed some of his own disciples to become hidden tzaddikim, and he entrusted them with various missions, especially in the villages, rural settlements, and inns.

Reb Mordechai also knew of the Baal Shem Tov’s opinion that Jews ought to live in small villages, rural settlements, or inns, and earn their living through agricultural pursuits and other rural occupations: leasing inns, streams with water-powered mills, windmills, and orchards.

The Baal Shem Tov put many hundreds of Jewish families to work in such businesses. He would send some of his disciples to these villagers and country folk, to serve as shochtim and as melamdim for their children. The Baal Shem Tov maintained a special charity fund, that he named the “Pidyon Sh’vuyim Fund.” This fund was used to aid the tenant farmers and innkeepers who were unable to pay their rent.3

There is a famous quotation of the Baal Shem Tov:

I especially love the simple Jews; the unpretentious Jew is our greatest treasure. It is written,4 “ ‘For you will be a treasured land for Me,’ says Almighty G‑d.” Just as even the wisest of men can never fully comprehend the immense natural wealth that G‑d implanted within the earth (for everything originates from the soil), so too, no one can ever fully comprehend the immense treasure hidden within the Jews, who are the “[G‑d’s] treasured land.” I will cause the Jews to produce the fruits that “[G‑d’s] treasured land” is capable of yielding.

Reb Mordechai was convinced that this beggar was one of the Rebbe’s agents, and he was deeply distressed over having lost the opportunity [to speak with him].

When Reb Mordechai arrived in Orsha, he learned that there were two routes by which one could travel to Lubavitch: by way of Babinovitch, or by way of Dubravna. He decided to travel through Dubravna, on the chance that the yeshivah bochur’s father — who lived there — might be his long-lost companion, Reb Chayim.

Upon arriving in Dubravna, Reb Mordechai followed his habit of going immediately to the beis hamedrash. There he found a large number of people, both middle aged and elderly, sitting and studying. He began asking about Reb Chayim Resasner, but none of those present had any idea who this Chayim Resasner might be.

A few hours later, as Minchah time approached, more people began to assemble, among them also the shammes of the beis hamedrash. Reb Mordechai continued asking about Reb Chayim Resasner, who had a son ... studying at the Kochenover yeshivah, and who was (according to the son’s account) a storekeeper; but his wife ran the store, while Reb Chayim sat in the beis hamedrash and studied.

Upon hearing all of these clues to Reb Chayim’s identity, the shammes concluded that it must be “Reb Chayim Porush,” who had been known as Reb Chayim Resasner when he first arrived in Dubravna, many years earlier. He advised Reb Mordechai to go to the grave diggers’ shul, where he would find him.

Reb Mordechai took up his belongings, and made his way to the grave diggers’ shul which was at the end of Kalter Street, close by the cemetery. When he arrived at the grave diggers’ shul, they had already davened Minchah. There were many people present, some of them elderly. When he asked about Reb Chayim Porush, they pointed to a Jew who was still in the middle of his Minchah prayers in the side-room.

Reb Mordechai began observing Reb Chayim Porush closely, but was unable to get a good look at his face, for he was in the middle of Shemoneh Esreh, and stood completely bent over, his face covered by his hand. His external appearance — his lean build and his stooped posture — suggested a person much older than his friend Reb Chayim would be. He was sure that this “Reb Chayim Resasner” as the Kochenover yeshivah bochur had called him, who was now known as “Reb Chayim Porush,” was not his companion Reb Chayim Mazierer; he had wasted his time by passing through Dubravna on his way from Orsha to Lubavitch. Reb Mordechai stood there, watching and listening as the porush davened and beat his chest while reciting Al Cheit during this ordinary weekday Minchah Shemoneh Esreh.

Reb Mordechai’s lengthy stay at the Baal Shem Tov’s court, where he had heard his teachings and observed his system of avodah, serving G‑d through Torah study and prayer, had banished his former melancholy disposition and his haughty mannerisms. Now, as Reb Mordechai observed the porush davening, he recalled how he himself had once looked, before coming to the Baal Shem Tov. He thought to himself how unfortunate this porush was. His intentions were good, but his actions were undesirable5 and his ways were not the correct way. One must “Serve the L‑rd with joy.”6 If a person realizes how great G‑d is, and contemplates the fact that such an insignificant creature as himself is given the opportunity to worship G‑d, this realization itself should eliminate any arrogance, instilling in him the characteristics of kindness and true ahavas Yisrael.

As the Rebbe says, “One must have mesirus nefesh to do a favor for even a single Jew, in material matters, and especially in spiritual matters.”

Reb Mordechai was sure that the porush had no idea of the true greatness of the Creator, nor the meaning of, “How great are Your works, O L‑rd!”7 and “How numerous are Your works, O L‑rd!”8 He certainly knew nothing about the delight that accompanies the performance of a mitzvah or the pleasure to be derived from doing a favor for a Jew.

Footnotes
1.
Shmos 23:5.
2.
A play on words: the Hebrew words chamor (חמור) — “donkey” and chomer (חומר) — “material substance” share the same Hebrew letters.
3.
And would otherwise be imprisoned by the landowner.
4.
Malachi 3:12.
5.
See the Introduction to the Kuzari.
6.
Tehillim 100:2.
7.
Ibid., 92:6.
8.
Ibid., 104:24.
From the writings of the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn; translation/adaptation by Yanki Tauber.
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