Happiness at happy times shines bright and clear, but the joy wrestled from the abyss of despair can transform the world. For such joy says, “I too was there. I was born from the thick of night, wrought from its bitterness and suckled by its dark earth. And from that power, I became light, boundless, light that no darkness can oppose.”

What was the state of the Jewish soul 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—such as failing to take upon themselves a sufficient number of voluntary fasts, then for failing to suppress the desire to manage one last meal before such a fast, and then for failure to devote the entirety of the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to fasting, mourning and weeping.

The forms of divine retribution elaborated upon for such crimes are better left unrepeated, the success of the preacher being measured by the tears, dread and trembling instilled in the audience.

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 In synagogue sermons, ladles of despair stirred in a pot of self-pity made up the soup du jour, often without a trace of consolation.

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.

Joy as a Mitzvah

It wasn’t as though the Baal Shem Tov introduced joy to Judaism. Much to the perturbation of the preachers mentioned above, the Torah declares only one fast day and 16 days of joy—25, if we add Purim and Chanukah. 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.

This last point is crucial to understanding the texts within this collection. So that you can grasp its meaning, I must ask you to discard the romantic fantasies painted by 19th century historians, and rediscover the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples within the true intellectual context of their times: as 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.

When the Ari came, wrote his protégé, Rabbi Chaim Vital, a new path was opened. New souls entered the world, souls of the World of Tikun. Tikun means repair. The human being had been empowered to repair his own world.

Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G‑d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G‑d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G‑d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good.

You may describe that redemption in apocalyptic terms, as had many of the mystics. You might describe it as an almost natural event, as had Maimonides, the rationalist. But in all versions, humanity had little to do other than keeping well-behaved.

The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G‑d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up.

In the Ari’s narrative of tikun, G‑d first emanated a magnificent world—the world called Tohu. Yet this primordial world could not contain its own, unbounded light, resulting in its auto-annihilation. The fragments of that world fell to generate the artifacts of our own world, carrying with them a trace of that original intense energy. The human being was then placed within this shattered world to put the pieces back together, harnessing the energy of those sparks of unbounded light, by carefully following the instructions of the Torah. Once that job is done, redemption arrives.

In effect, the Ari presented an activist theology of mitzvahs: Every Torah act is a device for returning that which had been lost, reuniting that which been torn asunder, and tuning the world to the harmony originally intended. For the students of the Ari, tikun was an endeavor that lifted every word of prayer, pervaded every concept of Torah, and guided their mental focus in every mitzvah they performed.

Few ideas spread as fast and extensively as these teachings of the Ari. Yet, conceptually, they remained a world apart, in the carefully guarded cloister of mystic prayer and meditation. There, often misunderstood, even abused, they awaited the epiphany of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov to clarify them and take them out into the street.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth rebbe of Lubavitch, describes the earliest such awakening in a tradition he had received from his teachers. He tells the story in the voice of the Baal Shem Tov himself: 3

On my sixteenth birthday, the eighteenth of Elul 5474 [1714], I was in a small village. The innkeeper was a Jew of quintessential simplicity. He knew his prayers only with difficulty—he had no idea what the words meant. But he had a great awe of heaven, and for everything that would occur to him he would comment, “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever.” The innkeeper’s wife and partner had a different saying: “Blessed be His Holy Name.”

On that day, I went to meditate in solitude in the pasture, as had been taught by the sages before us, that on one’s birthday one should meditate alone for a period of time. In my meditations I recited Psalms and concentrated on the yichudim4 of the divine names.

As I was immersed in this, I had lost awareness of my surroundings. Suddenly, I beheld Elijah the Prophet—and a smile was drawn over his lips. I was very amazed that I should merit a revelation of Elijah the Prophet while alone. When I was with the tzaddik Rabbi Meir, and also with others of the hidden tzaddikim, I had the fortune to see Elijah the Prophet. But to be privileged to this while alone—this was the very first time, and I was quite amazed. Understandably, I was unable to interpret the smile on Elijah’s face.

And this is what he said to me:

“Behold, you are struggling with great effort to focus your mind upon the divine names that extend from the verses of psalms that David, King of Israel, composed. But Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and Zlata his wife are entirely ignorant of the yichudim of divine names that extend from “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever” that the innkeeper recites, and “Blessed be His Holy Name” that she recites. And nevertheless, these yichudim cause a tempest throughout all the worlds far beyond the yichudim of divine names that the great tzaddikim can create.”

Then, Elijah the Prophet told me about the pleasure G‑d takes, so to speak, from the praise and thanksgiving of the men, women and children who praise Him—especially when the praise and thanks comes from simple people, and most specifically when it is ongoing, continual praise—for then they are continuously bonded with G‑d, blessed be He, with pure faith and sincerity of heart.

From that time on I took upon myself a path in the service of G‑d to bring men, women and children to say words of praise to G‑d. I would always ask them about their health, the health of their children, about their material welfare, and they would answer me with various words of praise for the Holy One, blessed be He, each one in his or her own way.

For several years I did this myself, and at one of the gatherings of the hidden tzaddikim they all accepted this path…

The mystical unities of the divine names were no longer the exclusive domain of the mystic; they were out there in the mouths and deeds of every simple innkeeper and his wife, whether they knew of them or not. The job of the enlightened was to reveal them there, to fan their flames and carry them yet higher.

The most vital tool for repair and redemption was joy. In the last four of the teachings below, you will see how the Baal Shem Tov understood the effect of joy in a classically Lurianic way. 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 only gives it according to the state of the Lower World. If it is of glowing countenance from below, in the same manner it is shined upon from above; but if it gloats in sadness, it is given 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.5

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.

The Baal Shem Tov never set his teachings to parchment or paper. His students and their students in turn carried his teachings with them mostly orally, developing them yet further, each along his own particular path.

In the generation after the passing of the fathers of the movement, however, there was a popular demand to have in writing what the Baal Shem Tov himself had actually said. Two of the popular works from this period are Tzava’at Harivash6 and Keter Shem Tov.7 Both are collections, extracting aphorisms from the works of the early teachers, especially from the sermons of Rabbi Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye.

In both these works, enigmas abound. For one, the Baal Shem Tov taught in the warm and folksy tongue of Yiddish, while these aphorisms are provided to us in classical Hebrew. Furthermore, they are presented in tight, concise form, with little elaboration. The anonymous editor of the Tzava’at Harivash himself prefaces, “All that I have written here are principles, greater and more precious than fine gold. Each matter is on its own a major principle.”

Beyond that, they come to us orphaned of any frame of reference. The farmer holds a seed and knows in just what soil it belongs at what season of the year, into what species of plant it will grow and what care he must provide it to help it there; the urban dweller does not know whether it is for gardening, munching or recycling. So too, these seeds of the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings baffled and confused even readers of their own times, often leading them to conclusions quite the opposite of their intent. How much more so in our times, so distant from the spirit of that era.

What I’ve done, therefore, is to provide a translation that throws back in much of the original soil, the words between the lines that the original student heard, the background upon which these strokes were painted. Some of this can be discerned by looking back at the original sources from which these aphorisms were extracted. Yet more can be known from the teachings of later expounders of chassidic thought, especially the works of prime expositor of chassidic thought, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, and his successors.

Even then, I found it necessary to provide a short introduction to each teaching, again to provide the modern reader a context in which to read the teachings that follows. Every stroke of the keyboard was with great trepidation—am I truly enhancing the reader’s experience, or simply adding a fifth leg, depreciating what is already there by adding that which does not belong? At this point, I leave that to the reader to decide.

Books on happiness abound. In this work, I have attempted more than to provide guidance and wisdom; I have attempted to connect the reader with the very soul and essence of the Baal Shem Tov, to the tree of life itself. The wellspring is in your hands.

How does simplicity express itself in daily life? It is reflected in earnest sincerity. How is it preserved? By purity of the body and dissolution of the ego, through immersion in pure waters. How is it sustained? With joy.

Above all, always make sure that every nuance of your spiritual work is free of 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? If so, you have no choice but to keep this constantly in mind—don't allow your mind to forget about it even for a moment. It is the sort of thing that can be spoiled by a single distraction.

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.8 It is complete with one last item: Stay far away from depression. Let your heart rejoice in G‑d.

—Tzava’at Harivash 15

All the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings are one. They are neither a collection nor a synthesis, but a single jewel with countless facets. At their core lies an unspeakable essence that transcends all and yet pervades all—including the smallest details of life.

The Baal Shem Tov found a wholly transcendent G‑d in all things. He also knew no fear. He also rejoiced at all times.

All of these are one: Since the universe is nothing more than G‑dly light perpetually articulated in transient forms, then of what is there to fear? And if the Infinite is to be found within each of those articulations, at every time and in every place, speaking to you, being there with you, awaiting you to bond with Him, then every moment is a moment of infinite joy.

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

How does simplicity express itself in daily life? It is reflected in earnest sincerity. How is it preserved? By purity of the body and dissolution of the ego, through immersion in pure waters. How is it sustained? With joy.

Above all, always make sure that every nuance of your spiritual work is free of 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? If so, you have no choice but to keep this constantly in mind—don't allow your mind to forget about it even for a moment. It is the sort of thing that can be spoiled by a single distraction.

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.9 It is complete with one last item: Stay far away from depression. Let your heart rejoice in G‑d.

—Tzava’at Harivash 15

Intuitively, the reaction to disturbing thoughts and erotic fantasies is to chastise oneself, to cause oneself psychological pain. The Baal Shem Tov rejected this path. Rather than wrestling with the dirt head on, he provided a path that soars high above.

Study with energy and great joy.

That will reduce disturbing thoughts.

—Tzava’at Harivash 51

Everything must begin with awe; everything must lead to joy. One who feels awe and stops there lives in torment. One who feels joy without awe loses that joy within the snare of ego.

It may seem ironic, even paradoxical, but it is in the realization of our own nothingness, trembling before the awesome presence of the Infinite, that true joy is born. For, as small as we are, we are related to that awesome presence. We are its children, and its privileged servants.

They are two companions that must never part.

Serve G‑d with reverence, with a sense of awe and nothingness before the Infinite, 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

Everything must begin with awe; everything must lead to joy. One who feels awe and stops there lives in torment. One who feels joy without awe loses that joy within the snare of ego.

It may seem ironic, even paradoxical, but it is in the realization of our own nothingness, trembling before the awesome presence of the Infinite, that true joy is born. For, as small as we are, we are related to that awesome presence. We are its children, and its privileged servants.

Serve G‑d with reverence, with a sense of awe and nothingness before the Infinite, 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

This is truly revolutionary: G‑d is not found in purity and innocence alone. G‑d is found in the struggle itself, in the very act of wrestling with one’s basest instincts. That too is a moment to celebrate—perhaps the greatest moment to celebrate.

Suddenly, an Infinite G‑d becomes discoverable in the darkest caverns of life.

Let’s say a fantasy comes to you, 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

“Where your thoughts are,” the Baal Shem Tov would say, “there you are, all of you.”

If so, the last place you want your thoughts to be is wallowing in past sins.

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

Happiness is not a goal; it is a strategy—your most vital strategy. So vital, the enemy will do whatever it can to sabotage it. And the best way to sabotage happiness is with guilt.

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

There are two reasons a person might cry. One is because he is in pain and there is nothing left to do but cry. The other is something holds him back from attaining his desire, so he cries, the tears rip away that deterrent, and he reaches his goal.

The first is a cry of hopelessness. The second is a cry of joy: one comes close to the light, cries out to reach it, and all the ugly baggage of the past falls away.

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

As man desires to find G‑d and bond with Him, so G‑d desires to find man and bond with him, with his every limb and faculty, with every aspect of his world. And so, He directs a person’s life in such a way that, “in all your ways you should know Him.”

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

Prayer is an act of gratitude and celebration, three times a day.

So many believe that the only way to get what they want from G‑d is by kvetching about it. It is not true. Celebrate and express gratitude for whatever you have been given, and He will give you more.

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

The Baal Shem Tov passed through a Jewish community before the High Holidays where they asked him to stay and pray with them. He inquired about the cantor who would lead the communal prayers. They told him that the cantor sang a lovely, cheerful song of his own for the confession of sins in the Yom Kippur prayer.

The Baal Shem Tov asked to bring the cantor before him, and demanded of him why he sang about sins against G‑d in a cheerful tune. Upon hearing his response, he resolved to stay in that place for the High Holidays

What did the cantor answer? He replied, “I am a launderer by profession, and here I have been asked to launder the clothes of the greatest King of kings. Should I not rejoice in my task?”

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

It is important to know the meaning of every word that you pray, and to focus your heart on their meaning as you utter those words.

But the words themselves, the very sounds and utterances, they too are instruments of great power. The very act of bonding with the words that you utter is itself a divine service, one which can carry a person to the highest heights—if only he will say those words with gusto and 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

“Evil things do not issue forth from Above.” In the Creator’s mind, our world is a wondrous tapestry of infinite colors and forms, a symphony of uncountable instruments, a story of fathomless depth. To us, stuck within the details of that story, things can often look very ugly.

Our job is to heal that apparent ugliness, by connecting each thing to its origin above, within the mind of G‑d. We do this through a mitzvah, a prayer, a teaching, a sense of faith. The Kabbalist can do this with precision, and thereby effect great healing, for he sees with clarity the origin of each thing and every person.

Yet there is a caveat, a necessary condition before any connection can be made.

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

Again we find the power of joy and love: they lift all things and connect them with their origin. Even the fury of G‑d is ameliorated and transformed to compassion through joy.

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

Every work of art has a body and a soul. The soul is that which the artist wishes to express; the body is the forms he chooses to express that soul. The master artist is a master both in expression of his soul, and in crafting the forms for that expression. The success of any work of art depends upon the harmony of those forms with the soul that they express.

So too, the entire cosmos is composed of this interplay of intense, G‑dly light expressed through restricting channels and forms. In the microcosmos that is man, the soul expresses the boundless light of G‑d; the body provides a tightly bounded mass through which that soul must be expressed.

Pain and suffering occur when soul and body become dissonant, when the body fails to allow the soul expression, or the soul rejects the limitations of the body. It is obvious then, that anger over that pain only exacerbates the problem by tearing the two yet further apart. The Baal Shem Tov teaches here that one must embrace pain with joy. One must have faith that these tight restrictions of the body and of the world that appear to obstruct the light are nothing less than the masterful strokes of the Master Artist. That we cannot fathom their meaning or purpose is only further evidence of their depth of beauty—such a depth that it lies beyond the scope of the human mind until it has completely unfolded. In the meantime, we have faith, powerful faith.

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

I chose this for the end, since it summarizes a practical path for all of us, albeit one contrary to human nature. We naturally tend to discern all that is ugly and fight against it—a bitter medicine indeed. Instead, the Baal Shem Tov and his students teach us, discern the good that can undoubtedly be found within each person, each thing and each event, cherish that good and allow it to shine. In this way, in all your ways you will rejoice.

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