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The High Road

The High Road


For many years, my thoughts were often focused on the phenomenon of memory. The way I saw it, memory reigned sovereign in the metaphysical realm. It helped me to solve all of my existential probings.

Unlike the Just — who are the true repository of memory, who speak in detours only because people's vessels are not apt to receive that intelligence all at once — I am a broken vessel, who must resort to circuitousness to find my own way around. My memory is that of an archaeologist by comparison. Each fragment that I unearth calls for the next, until I finally face the complete form. It is, I have to admit, a second-rate approach for recovering lost intelligence. Nevertheless, it is a reliable one, in so far as it presents all the facts, all the pieces, in which case I am assured that the memory has been captured.

But enough preamble. Let us begin to gather the pieces.

Let's look at the Europe of two or three centuries ago, when the Jewish communities were devastated by poverty and by the constant fear of persecution. Worse still was the mood of distrust, the shattered hopes that had followed in the wake of a chain of false messiahs. It is easy to understand how, under such circumstances, morale could sink so low. The scholars, the elite who held the light of tradition, remained isolated from the common folk, and were therefore unable to convey to them the joy contained within those ancient teachings which they had been entrusted to preserve.

Then came the master, the holy Baal Shem Tov, to irrigate abandoned fields. He proceeded to transmit to common folk, in their own terms, what had been previously reserved for the select few. His rationale was clear: the same Father in heaven who gives clever people the capacity to understand, also creates the feeble mind, and grants it no less right to share in the divine feast. And upon bringing to light the challenge, the Baal Shem Tov also unearthed the key: that special language by means of which the poor are allotted their spiritual portion, undefiled and unabridged.

The renaissance sparked by the Baal Shem Tov was fired by twin concerns. One, of course, was his love for his people. Had that been all, he might have thought it enough to spoon-feed the needy with the wealth of his own wisdom. But beyond that, he saw how heaven itself was suffering from excess holiness — or rather from our failure to raise up vessels into which the holy could descend. With small words attuned to small people, for the sake of heaven as well as man, he let the job be done.

When the holy was finally allowed to penetrate to the depths where it belongs, its effect on the demeanor of those it touched was extraordinary. Housed in such modest surroundings, heaven was made a neighborhood. It became a daily occurrence for simple folk to ascend there on ladders of wood, or to arrive through open doors from adjacent rooms. No high-powered lens was required to gaze into the infinite. Simple people were ideal chariots to transport the sacred, with never a self-conscious thought, for they did not suffer from the vanity with which the gifted are apt to be plagued.

They could travel in an instant through time to Sinai, and fall on their faces, trembling as if they had just received the Law. Just yesterday they were slaves to Pharaoh; today they were free. The messiah was not a fable for these good people, or a possible dream of times to come; for them, redemption was now. Cunning minds might contend that they were merely naive. I would say, rather, that they bore the mark of wisdom: a good memory of the future, as well as of the past. To bind past events with those that must inevitably come, to fuse the two extremes of time and bring them to peace with the present, is to partake of the feast prepared by the Baal Shem Tov, the saintly teacher of the rich and the poor, who revealed that memory is redemption.

There is no limit to what memory can achieve. It is the source, the common font which, when tapped, can resolve all contradictions, and remind all people that they are at once equal and unique. Bound to our past, assured of our future, we are freed to become ourselves. One who remembers his origin in dust and ashes, and his end as a nest for worms, becomes humble enough to be crowned a king. Memory is the medium of a settled mind. It is the best medicine, too; for no matter who or what the agent of healing may be, real cure is effected by the strength that is found within. It is a process of reawakening to the model of health that is stored within our genes.

But how soon memory slips away, when we are hit with some passing misfortune. One might be snubbed inadvertently by a tactless friend, and in a moment of emotional upset lose sight of all the good that has accrued from a lifelong friendship. Or a son might forget all the care his parents gave him, after a castigation or a clash. He bears the hurt in his heart, and survives by assuming a posture of indifference while, unknown to him, the hurt turns to hatred and rage. Years pass, and he roams, rootless and estranged. Even in the midst of his successes, he is susceptible to depression and disease. Trauma taints his vision, and he cannot see the whole. He will find correctives that achieve half the cure, will move from contrivance to contrivance, all futile, unless he turns a blind eye to his grievances, so truly as to forget all insults, and takes the high road.

That, if I may be so bold, is the prerequisite phase of memory at its best: to forget the bad and remember the good.

From The Possible Man by Meir Michel Abehsera
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Anonymous 95825 December 9, 2017

Read this while searching for Baal Shem Tov Story after Havdalah - seeing out Yud Tes Kislev- I found in your writing depth of soul, the best explanation yet for spread of the wellsprings and why. Memory of the future- memory of the past; and how to set our soul free. My soul has ascended and lifted from what you have shared here in poetic writing and maybe allusion.
Shavua Tov - and thanks. Reply

Catherine ny December 26, 2012

breaking free They used to believe in family curses (Kennedy) but now we see it as genetic traits.
But if one wants to break free of family hurts and injustices one must change their internal easy path that generations before you have followed. If someone in your family hurt you don't hold grudges ...forgive. following that path sets one free. It doesn't mean keep getting hurt. It just sets you free. It changes all the dynamics. It changes your past (your not partaking in the grudge festivals of prior generations) and it changes the future (you will not be unhappy sick and sad) . Your children will not live a life of destruction but will have a life of construction. Yes by remembering the good one can lift himself above all the hurts. It is the only path to follow. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem, Israel April 30, 2008

Thank You, R' Meir For beginning where we all are sitting, somewhere under the table, and gradually lifting us up, teaching us to dine as royalty at the King's table. You have crafted, in this essay, an exquisite passageway to the Holy Baal Shem Tov, through examining your life with honesty and compassion. "A heart knows a heart..." With eternal gratitude from one of your first students, now in Yerushalayim (via Vienna, Boulder, Avignon, Binghamton, and New York City) Reply

Anonymous September 2, 2004

Thank you for writing this I find this article very rich in its message- and I love the wording.

Examples, wording: "...who speak in detours....twin heaven itself was suffering from excess holiness " -- I better stop here, before I take up too many of my allotted 1000 characters.

I've read the entirety of what you wrote twice, and then I kept reading the same 2 paragraphs over and over (beginning with "When the holy was finally allowed to penetrate to the depths where it belongs" to "memory is redemption").

I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in those neighborhoods you wrote of. I tried to imagine traveling "in an instant through time to Sinai"...having been slaves to Pharaoh just yesterday, but ( ahhh) being free today.

"Memory is redemption."

How very far I am from having the wisdom of the simple people you wrote of. However, this does not mean that I should just sigh and then go on to other things.


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