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Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov entered a chilled, dreary world and set it afire. He taught that even the simplest soul can bond to the Infinite Creator with love and joy. His stories and teachings breathe with vibrant life, charging everyday deeds with blazing colors and unstoppable energy.

Here is a small collection of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings, culled from two classic anthologies and presented in contemporary English, concerning the need to celebrate life, presenting strategies to overcome sadness, and to fill all that you do with joy.

Preface: The Joyful Revolution of the Baal Shem Tov

What did the Jewish world look like when the Baal Shem Tov arrived on the scene?

The terror of the Cossack and Tartar massacres of 1648–49 that destroyed entire communities still reverberated throughout Jewish Poland. The grand disappointment of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, had left many faithful Jews heartbroken and disillusioned.

The infrastructure of Jewish life had been corrupted, as the Polish princes routinely sold the position of community rabbi to unworthy characters, making a mockery of the position. A schism had formed between those who could afford Talmudic scholarship and those who, in their struggle to survive, had neither the time nor the head for books and study.

Especially demoralizing was the standard fare of popular sermons. So obsessed were some preachers with their themes of guilt, punishment and despair, they would castigate their congregants over matters for which they were neither obligated, nor could reasonably be expected to achieve

If you live with something long enough, you begin to believe it’s a member of your family. Such was the case with misery: Jews had begun to see depression as a mark of piety and a Jewish duty. To fight it was not just futile, but outright heresy, for any trace of joyousness was suspect as sin.1

And now a traveling preacher stands on a crate in the town square, extolling the virtues of the simple Jew, describing G‑d’s interminable love for each and every one “as a father would love an only child born to him in his old age,” relating tales of simple folk such as themselves and citing Talmudic passages to lift the peoples’ spirits and breathe joy into their souls. A mighty uprising had sprung forth, that of Chassidism, one which would transform forever the Jewish landscape.

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

The Baal Shem Tov’s Return to Joy

It wasn’t as though the Baal Shem Tov introduced joy to Judaism. The scourge of these fire-and-brimstone preachers was the anomaly; the Baal Shem Tov was returning to tradition. The Book of Psalms, alongside its bitter laments, gushes with explosive, often euphoric songs enjoining us to “serve G‑d with happiness!” The Talmud lauds those who perform mitzvahs joyously, informing us that prayer and study are meant to be joyous activities. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, Bachya ben Asher all discuss joy as a divine service, even a vital one.

But for the Baal Shem Tov, joy was more than a detail of Jewish life; it was a path of its own—the key and central path.

Yet further: The Baal Shem Tov didn’t limit joy to prayer, study and performance of mitzvahs. Consistent with his guiding principle that G‑d is everywhere and can be found in all things, he taught that every event that befalls a person, everything a person sees or hears, all presents an opportunity to know the Creator and to serve Him. There can be no time, no circumstance and no place in which you cannot connect with the Infinite. And if so, there is no excuse at any time to not be happy—since joy is the key to all divine service.

And perhaps most fascinating: the Baal Shem Tov understood joy as a device to repair the world, as a key to redemption.

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

The Baal Shem Tov & Joy as Tikkun

The Baal Shem Tov and his disciples were Talmudic scholars, as well as scholars of the Kabbalah, in particular, the Kabbalah of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria2—as were, in fact, most Jewish scholars of the time. In a sense, they were only drawing to its logical conclusion the revolution that the Ari had begun a century and a half earlier.

The Ari had described in detail how each mitzvah of the Torah repairs and improves the world.

Troubles, pain, evil decrees, all that is ugly and bad in this world, all are artifacts of constrictions of light. Evil is a kind of epiphenomenon that exists only as a result of the pre-cosmic catastrophe, the shattering of Tohu: since this spark of good has fallen, it has been severed from its origin, allowing its light to be distorted and even trapped within a coarse outer shell.

Just as illness is caused by a constriction of the flow of life from one organ to another, so all troubles, pain, evil decrees and any ugliness of this world is caused by a constriction of the divine energy that vitalizes all things. (In kabbalistic terms, these are called judgments.)

The cure, then, is to reattach the fallen spark to its origin. “Judgments can only be sweetened at their source,” goes the kabbalistic dictum. It’s up to Torah to guide us to find that origin and provide us a means to affect the reunion.

The Baal Shem Tov found that connection in joy: Find the beauty within the ugliness, the spark of light behind the darkness, the beneficent Creator’s deeper intent behind whatever circumstance is disturbing you, and celebrate it. The celebration itself redeems the divine spark and carries it up to its origin. Reconnected, the evil is sweetened and transformed.

In truth, the Zohar says it all:

Come and see: The Lower World is always ready to receive, and is called a precious stone. The Upper World can only provide the Lower World according to its state. If it glows from below, in the same manner it is shined upon from above; but if it gloats in sadness, it receives judgment in return.

Similarly, it is written, “Serve G‑d with joy!”—because human joy draws another supernal joy. Thus, just as the Lower World is crowned, so it draws from above.3

The joy of Chasidim, then, is not a naive joy, nor the dizzy, unbridled enthusiasm of a crazed fanatic. It is joy with a purpose—because we see what is broken, therefore we search for the key to heal it. And the twist of that key is the sincere joy within our hearts.

In a famous letter to his brother-in-law, the Baal Shem Tov writes of his ascendance to the highest of all supernal realms, the chamber of the Messiah. He asks, “Master, when will you arrive?” The answer: “When your wellsprings will spread to the outside, and the common people will make yichudim as you do.”

In our joy and celebration, we are achieving that destiny.

18 Joyous Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky

One: Trust and Celebrate

Envision that the Creator, whose glory fills the earth, He and His presence are continually with you. This is the most subtle of all experiences.

Tell yourself, “He is the Master of all that occurs in the world. He can do anything I desire. And therefore, it makes no sense for me to put my confidence in anything else but Him, may He be blessed.”

Rejoice constantly. Ponder and believe with complete faith that the Divine Presence is with you and protecting you; that you are bound up with the Creator and the Creator is bound up with you, with your every limb and every faculty; that your focus is fixed on the Creator and the Creator’s focus is fixed upon you.

And the Creator could do whatever He wants. If He so desired, He could annihilate all the worlds in a single moment and recreate them all in a single moment. Within Him are rooted all goodness and all stern judgments in the world. For the current of His energy runs through each thing.

And you say, “As for me, I do not rely upon, nor do I fear, anyone or anything other than Him, blessed be He.”

—Tzava’at Harivash 137

Two: Sincerity, Immersion and Joy

Above all, always ensure that you serve your Creator with no ulterior motives. To accomplish such a degree of pure sincerity, you'll need to be very clever. It is so deep, so deep, who can find it? It requires constant attention. Don’t allow your mind to be distracted from it even for a moment. A single distraction is all it takes.

Secondly, be careful about immersion in the mikvah at all appropriate times. When immersing, focus on the meditations that relate to immersion in a mikvah.

A thread woven of three strands, we are told, is not easily broken.4 This thread is complete with one last item: Stay far away from depression. Let your heart rejoice in G‑d.

—Tzava’at Harivash 15

Three: Rescue By Celebration

We have a tradition from the Baal Shem Tov:

By celebrating that G‑d will come to your rescue, you have already provided the remedy.

Keter Shem Tov, Appendix, #234.

Four: Joyous Studies

Study with energy and great joy.

That will reduce disturbing thoughts.

—Tzava’at Harivash 51

Five: Reverence and Happiness

Serve G‑d with reverence and with happiness. They are two companions, complementing one another, that must never part.

Unhappy reverence is a gloomy attitude. It's not nice to torment yourself over the way you serve your G‑d.

Rather, always be happy. No matter what sort of a time, you still must be serving Him. Don’t waste your time fretting over how and what.

—Tzava’at Harivash 110.

Six: The Ultimate Reward

In the Teachings of the Fathers, we learn, “The reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.”

Meaning that there is no greater reward than the delight you get out of doing a mitzvah happily. The delight of a happy mitzvah is so great that even if there were no other reward to come beyond it, this would be enough.

And yet, in truth, in addition to this delight, there is also an unlimited reward yet to come for any mitzvah that you've done happily.

Keter Shem Tov 129.

Seven: The Happy Ascetic

Let’s say a fantasy falls into your mind, a craving for something of this world.

Take your mind far away from it. Despise this craving until it is hateful and repugnant to you. Enrage your urge for good against the urge for bad and against this craving, and conquer it in that way.

But don’t allow that unfulfilled craving to make you depressed. On the contrary, celebrate that you are privileged to subdue your desires for the honor of the Creator, blessed be He!

This is one way to understand what our rabbis meant when they talked about “those who rejoice in their suffering.”

—Tzava’at Harivash 9.

Eight: Better Happy Than Strict

Don’t get carried away with excessive details in everything you do. This is your evil impulse working against you. It intends to agonize you by insisting you haven’t fulfilled your obligation, just to make you depressed. Depression is a reprehensible attitude, the greatest obstacle to serving the Creator, blessed be He.

Even if you stumble in sin, don’t wallow in misery. That would destroy all that you have accomplished so far, rendering you an easy catch for the evil impulse, since you feel you are a lost cause anyway. Your divine service would fall apart.

Just be saddened over the sin, ashamed before the Creator, and plead to Him to absolve the bad you’ve done. And then get back to rejoicing in the Creator, blessed be He, since you thoroughly regret what you did and have resolved in your mind never to do foolish things like this again.

Even if you know with certainty that you haven’t fulfilled your obligation in some area because there were so many obstacles, don’t let that get you down. Consider that the Creator, blessed be He, examines all hearts and innards. He knows that you wanted to do things as best as possible, just that you were not able. And then strengthen yourself in joy in the Creator, may He be blessed.

—Tzava’at Harivash 46.

Nine: Better Smart Than Sad

Sometimes the evil impulse will deceive you, blaming you for a major transgression when really all you’ve done is neglect an extra detail, or perhaps not committed any transgression at all. Its intent? To make you miserable, and in your misery you will desist from serving your Creator.

Be wise to its ruse. Talk back to that impulse and say, “I’m not going to pay attention to this extra detail that you are talking about. I know your intent: to stop me from serving my Creator, blessed be He. I know that you are speaking lies. Even if there is a bit of sin here, my Creator has greater pleasure if I pay no attention to a technicality—by which you are attempting to manipulate me into gloomy service—and instead serve Him with joy.”

“After all, I’m not doing this for my own benefit, but to bring pleasure before Him, blessed be He. So when I ignore this detail of yours, my Creator will not mind—since I am ignoring it only so that I can continue serving Him! How could I lose even a moment from His service?!”

This is a first principle in serving the Creator, blessed be He: be as wary of sadness as possible.

—Tzava’at Harivash 44.

Ten: Bad Tears, Good Tears

Crying is very bad; one must serve G‑d with joy.

The only exception is when you cry from joy and bonding with G‑d.

Then it is very good.

—Tzava’at Harivash 45.

Eleven: In All Ways

Serve G‑d, may He be blessed, with every facet of your being. Everything is for the sake of the One Above, for G‑d desires to be served in all ways.

Let me illustrate what I mean: Sometimes you may need to go and speak with other people, so that at that time you are unable to learn. So how do you serve G‑d at that time? Because your thoughts must remain connected to G‑d, may He be blessed, creating supernal unities through your meditation.

Similarly, when you are traveling and unable to pray or to learn in the way to which you are accustomed—you must then serve Him in a different modality.

Don’t get yourself all distressed when you are in such situations. G‑d, may He be blessed, desires that you serve Him in all modalities that exist—sometimes in one way, sometimes in another. That is why you ended up in this situation where you must travel or speak with people—so that you can serve Him now in a different way.

—Tzava’at Harivash 3.

Twelve: Ask With Joy

Prayer with much joy is certainly better received by G‑d than prayer with sorrow and tears.

A parable for this: A pauper petitions a flesh-and-blood king with his requests, sobbing dramatically. Nevertheless, the king only provides him a small morsel.

But when one of the king’s administrators stands before him, he lauds the king eloquently and exuberantly. Then, in the midst of such praise, he slips in his request. To him the king provides a very generous gift, as befits nobility.

—Tzava’at Harivash 107.

Thirteen: G‑d In Your Words

When you pray, visualize that G‑d is invested within the letters of the prayers.

You see, words are clothing for thoughts. As fine clothes bring out a person’s inner beauty, so well-spoken words bring out your inner thoughts. They emerge from your personal world into the revealed world. So too, your words of prayer provide the same sort of clothing for G‑d’s presence.

If so, you should be thinking, “This is a great king, and I am making clothes for Him! If so, I should do this with joy!”

Put all your strength into those words, for this way you will attain oneness with Him. Since your energy is in your articulations of each letter, and in each letter G‑d dwells, in this way you have become one with Him.

—Tzava’at Harivash 108.

Fourteen: Pray With Joy

Noah was told, “Make a tzohar for the ark.” The word ark in Hebrew is teivah, which also means “a word.” A tzohar is something that shines. So the verse could mean, “Make each word you say shine.”

The ark had a lower floor, a second floor and a top floor. These correspond to the three levels of Worlds, Souls and G‑dliness—the three planes of reality of which the Zohar speaks.

So too, within every letter of every word there is an aspect of worldliness, a soul, and G‑dliness. The worldliness is its outer manifestation, the sound and form of the letter; the G‑dliness is its inner, boundless energy; and its soul is that which brings this boundless energy and this outer form into union. As you say these words in your prayer, these three aspects all ascend, bond and unite with one another and with the G‑dliness beyond.

This is all speaking of the letters alone. Beyond that, the letters bond to form words, forming true unions with G‑dliness. As all this occurs, you must include your own soul in every one of these stages, so that all the worlds unite as one and ascend together, causing great joy and immeasurable delight.

You must listen to every word that you say, for the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, is speaking. The Shechinah, you see, relates to the world of speech. It is the feminine aspect of G‑d, so to speak—as G‑d speaks back to Himself from within His world.

Yet that is only when each word has a tzohar—when the words come out shining because you say them to provide pleasure to your Creator.

Saying the words with such joy that the Shechinah speaks within them requires great faith, as the Shechinah is called “true faith.” But one who does not say them this way is called a “grumbler who alienates the Master of the Universe”—heaven forbid.

—Tzava’at Harivash 75.

Fifteen: The Two Jesters

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Beroka, who stood with Elijah the prophet in the market and asked, “Is there anyone here who belongs in the World to Come?”

Elijah pointed out two brothers. So Rabbi Beroka ran after the two brothers and asked them what their business was.

They replied, “We are jesters. We make sad people laugh. And when we see two people in a quarrel, we use some humor to make peace between them.”

The Baal Shem Tov was perplexed by this story and asked for an explanation. This is what he was told:

These two jesters were able to connect every matter they saw in a person to its origin in the higher world. By doing this, any harsh heavenly decrees upon this person were automatically annulled.

But if someone was depressed, they could not make this connection. So they would cheer him up with some humorous words, until they were able to make all the connections necessary.

—Keter Shem Tov 272.

Sixteen: Joy Sweetens Judgment

There are angels that wait to sing their song only once in seven years. Others sing only once in fifty years, or even once in a thousand years. Whatever they say is brief and to the point. Some say, “Holy!” Others say, “Blessed!” Some say a single verse—it is said about certain angels that each one says one verse from the chapter of Psalms that begins, “Give thanks to G‑d for He is good.”

Yet we Jews are permitted to say praises at any time or season, and to draw out the praises, songs and raptures as much as we wish.

The best way to understand this is with a parable, the story of a king, to whom all his servants and officers come and recite hymns of praise. Each one has an appointment for a limited amount of time to speak his praise, each according to his position and importance.

Yet this is only when the king is in a favorable mood. When the king is upset and angered, then all are afraid to provide him any praise whatsoever, as it is written, “Why are you praising the king at the time of fury?”

That is why, due to the concern that the king may, heaven forbid, not be in the best of moods, or that he may be angered due to something or other, they are accustomed to be as brief as possible at all times, and make a hasty exit.

Yet when the king’s dear and precious child enters, he has no such concerns. For even if the king is in a state of anger, the very sight of his precious child brings him joy and delight. The anger dissipates of its own, and obviously never returns, all the time his son stands before him, as is human nature. The child, therefore, has no worries, and enters at any time he so wishes and exudes praise without end, for he knows that this brings the king, his father, joy and delight.

Why is it this way? Why do anger and fury disappear when joy and love enter? Where do they go? Yes, this is human nature, but nevertheless, we must try to understand how and why.

But this is the power of love and joy: When they prevail, they cause anger and fury to ascend upward toward their root. This is part of the secret knowledge, that these forces of anger and strict judgment are mollified only when they reach their origin, since at its origin, all is pure goodness. It comes out that anger and fury are healed and mollified through love and joy.

—Tzava’at Harivash 132.

Seventeen: Embracing Pain With Joy

My master, the Baal Shem Tov, posed to us the following question:

G‑d commands us in His Torah to love Him. What benefit does He gain from our love for Him, us tiny creatures? If you would have love for a great and mighty king, what difference would that make to the king?

Then I heard from him this wondrous explanation: The reason there is suffering and tribulation in this world is because the world was created through strict judgment—meaning through a restriction of light that is called tzimtzum. These troubles are therefore like a body to the soul and to the spiritual life within them, restricting the expression of that light as the body restricts the soul.

When you accept that suffering with the spiritual energy of love and joy, you draw close, tie and bond the body to the soul—meaning the physical affliction to that inner spirituality—and in this way, the ordeal vanishes.

On the other hand, if, G‑d forbid, you do the opposite, you push the body away from that spiritual energy, causing yet greater restriction.

Therefore, the Torah provides us good advice: Love the L‑rd your G‑d. The name for L‑rd [YHVH] is a name of compassion, while the name for G‑d [Elokim] is one of strict judgment. So the statement means that through your act of love, accepting suffering with joy, you draw close G‑d’s name of judgment to His name of compassion, as the body is drawn close to the soul, allowing its light to shine.

Meditate on this. How delightful are the words of the wise!

—Keter Shem Tov 412; from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, p. 630b.

Eighteen: Medicine As Sweet As Honey

The Baal Shem Tov taught that in every word you speak, you should intend to subdue, distinguish and sweeten. Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka explained:

This means that you must let go of the harsh approach of finding fault with everyone and instead enter a mode of compassion, seeking out the positive.

Even if you do see something repugnant in another person, you must realize that this too is for good—your own good. The very fact that you noticed it demonstrates that there is some trace of this despicable trait in you as well. Now you can repent from even the thought of it.

If so, this is all for your own good: If you were alone in the world, you would think that you were pious. Now that you see these faults in another person, you are able to realize that they are in you as well.

Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye commented: It seems to me that this is one meaning of the verse, “It is not good that man is alone”—because then he would never recognize his faults. Therefore, “I will make for him a helper against him”—meaning that G‑d provides us other people that oppose us, so that we might see that we have a trace of whatever ills we see in them.

Therefore, if you have a bad neighbor who is disturbing you from your prayers or from studying Torah, or if you are bothered by any other sort of disturbance, speak to your heart, saying, “This is for my own good. It must be that my intentions were not earnest enough. This disturbance was sent to me to provide me that self awareness and spur me to greater sincerity.”

There are more examples, and every wise person should hear and add his own lessons.

The main thing is to understand that G‑d is found in every place and in all your activities. When you think this way, you will be able to recognize the Creator’s involvement, blessed be He, in every incident of life—just as in your studies and in your prayer…

The key is to abandon sadness and embrace joy. Our master, R’ Nachman of Horodenka, told me about the dream he had when he was in the Land of Israel. He was apprehensive about returning to the Diaspora for reasons known only to him. But then he had a vision in a dream. He was told that although there are many doctors who medicate their patients with bitter potions, yet the better doctor heals through medicine as sweet as honey.

This is precisely what we were discussing, that through fasts, self-affliction and pressuring yourself to relentless study, sadness prevails, and you fall into the trap of finding fault with everyone else who, instead of behaving like you, abandons the opportunity of eternal life for the transient life of the material world. Think of the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son when they left the cave, as mentioned in the Talmud, so that a voice had to sound from heaven, “Return to your cave!” This is medication with bitter waters.

And then there is the alternative form of healing, where even as you notice the faults of another, you realize that this is for your own self-improvement. This is healing as sweet as honey, awakening compassion for the world and for every person. It extends from an awareness that G‑d is in every particular thing.

Now you have a painless medicine, a path for yourself that is both delicious and aromatic.

How delightful are the words of the wise!

—Keter Shem Tov 302; from Toldot Yaakov Yosef, p. 731b.

© Leon Zernitzky
© Leon Zernitzky