. . . It is clear that the simple people who excel in their pure faith, in their sincerity in reciting Tehillim, in their participation in attending Torah study, in their attending brotherly gatherings, and fulfilling the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael with affection and joy—they are the delights of Gan Eden, they are the pride of the Rebbes.

The Baal Shem Tov displayed a remarkable affection for simple, pious folk. This approach was widely known, and was a major reason for the tremendous number of simple Jews who became his devotees in a short while, as many accounts attest.

However, his greatest disciples, who were tzadikim (righteous and saintly) and gaonim (Torah geniuses), could not accept this approach. True, the Baal Shem Tov frequently sent them to learn traits like sincerity, trust, simple faith, faith in sages, faith in tzadikim, love of Israel and the like from simple Jews. Still, they could not appreciate the Baal Shem Tov’s regard for ordinary people, and certainly could not emulate him in this.

It was the practice that guests ate two of the Shabbat meals at the Baal Shem Tov’s table, but one meal was reserved for the inner circle of disciples, the “sacred fellowship,” while guests were not admitted, even to observe from a distance. One summer Shabbat, between 1753 and 1755—when the circle of disciples included brilliant and renowned men like the Mezeritcher Maggid and the Rav of Polnoah—an incident occurred that thoroughly perplexed and confused the disciples.

A large number of guests came for that Shabbat, including many undistinguished people like farmers, artisans, cobblers, tailors, vintners, gardeners, stockmen, poultrymen and small merchants. At the Friday evening meal, the Baal Shem Tov showed extraordinary affection for these people. He poured of the remains of his kiddush wine into the cup of one; to another he gave his own kiddush cup to recite the kiddush; he gave pieces of the loaves of his hamotzi to several; to others he gave of the meat and fish of his portion. He showed other gestures of friendship and regard for these guests, leaving his disciples not a little perplexed.

The guests knew that they could not attend the second Shabbat meal, which was reserved for the inner group of disciples, so after their repast they assembled in the Baal Shem Tov’s shul, and—being totally uneducated, barely able to go beyond simply reading Chumash and Tehillim (Psalms)—they all started chanting Tehillim.

When the Baal Shem Tov sat at the table for the second meal, he arranged the disciples in a deliberate order, characteristic of the meticulous system governing everything he did. In a short while he started to hold forth, “saying Torah,” and all of the disciples felt a tremendous G‑dly delight in their master’s teaching. It was customary that they sang at the table, and when they saw the obvious cheery mood of the Baal Shem Tov, they were even more pleased, filled with a sense of gratitude and happiness for G‑d’s favor to them, granting them the privilege of being among the disciples of the saintly Baal Shem Tov.

It occurred to several of them that now it is so delightful, without the crowd of simple people who have no idea what the Master is saying. Why, they thought, does he display such affection for these people, pouring from his cup into theirs, even giving his cup to one of them?

These thoughts still flitted through their minds, and the Baal Shem Tov’s expression changed. He became serious, immersed in his thoughts (devekut), and without a shift in this mood he began: “Peace, peace, to the far and the near,” he quoted. Our sages observe that “where the penitent stand, the perfect saints cannot,” stressing perfect saints. He explained that there are two paths in G‑d’s service—the saint’s and the penitent’s. The service of simple people is similar to the penitent’s, the simple person’s humility of an order with the penitent’s remorse and resolve.

When the Baal Shem Tov concluded they resumed singing. Those disciples who had been questioning the Master’s open affection for simple people realized that he was aware of their thoughts. His exposition of the qualities of the simple, equating them with the superiority of the penitent over the saint, was obviously addressed to them.

During the songs he was still in his deep devekut, and when they finished singing he opened his eyes, intently examining each disciple. Then he told them to each place his right hand on the shoulder of his neighbor, so that the disciples sitting around the table would be joined. The Baal Shem Tov, naturally, sat at the head.

He told them to sing certain melodies while in this position of union, and after the songs he told them to shut their eyes and not open them until he tells them to. Then he placed his right hand on the shoulder of the disciple to his right, and his left on the disciple sitting there. The circle was closed.

Suddenly the disciples heard songs, melodies, interlaced with moving pleas, touching the very soul. One voice sang, “O, Ribbono Shel Olam,” and launched into a verse of Tehillim, “The sayings of G‑d are pure sayings . . .” Another sang, “Ai, Ribbono Shel Olam,” and another verse, “Test me, G‑d, prove me, purify my heart.” A third introduced his verse with a spontaneous cry in Yiddish—“Tatte hartziger . . . Be gracious to me; I trust in You and I shelter in the shadow of Your wings.” A fourth voice: “Ai gevald, zisser foter in himel, Let G‑d arise; His foes will scatter; His enemies will flee.” Another voice was anguished. “Tyerer tatte, A bird has a home; a swallow a nest.” Still another pleaded, “Lieber foter, derbarmdiger tatte, Bring us back, G‑d who helps, erase Your anger against us.”

The disciples hearing these songs of Tehillim trembled. Their eyes were still shut, but tears coursed down their cheeks. Their hearts were shattered by the songs. Each of the disciples fervently wished that G‑d help him to serve Him in this manner.

The Baal Shem Tov removed his hands from the shoulders of the two disciples, and the group no longer heard the songs and Tehillim. Then he told them to open their eyes and to sing a number of designated songs.

“When I heard the song of Tehillim,” the Maggid later told the Alter Rebbe, “my soul just spilled forth. I felt such a longing, such ahavah b’taanugim, that I had never yet been privileged to feel. My boots were soaked with the perspiration and tears of teshuvah from the inwardness and depths of the heart.”

When the Baal Shem Tov stopped singing, an instantaneous hush fell over the group. He sat in deep devekut for a prolonged time, then looked up and said, “The songs you heard were the songs of the simple Jews saying Tehillim with sincerity, from the recesses of the heart and with simple faith.

“Now, my pupils, think carefully on this. We are only the ‘edge of truth’ for the body is not truth and only the soul is truth, and it is only part of the essence, and so is called the ‘edge of truth.’ Still we do recognize truth, and feel truth and are affected by truth, affected deeply. Consider, then, how G‑d, who is perfect Truth, regards the Tehillim of these simple people.”

The Alter Rebbe told the Tzemach Tzedek that the Maggid told him that for the longest time he was deeply anguished for having had thoughts about his rebbe’s conduct. He made numerous efforts for rectification, but could not be serene about his “disapproval” of his rebbe.

One of those nights the Maggid had an unusual vision, the Alter Rebbe told the Tzemach Tzedek. But only years later, in fact only in the week before his death, did the Alter Rebbe tell the Tzemach Tzedek the vision itself. “As I returned through the chambers of Gan Eden,” the Magid had told the Alter Rebbe, “I passed a chamber where small children were learning Chumash. Moshe Rabbenu was their instructor.

“The children were all learning Parshat Lech Lecha. A child read aloud the passage, ‘Avraham fell on his face and laughed, thinking to himself: Can a hundred-year-old have a child? And can ninety-year-old Sarah give birth?’ Moshe explained that all the commentaries are true, but “a verse retains its simple meaning.” If you wonder how can Avraham doubt G‑d’s word, the answer is that this is because of the body, and even a holy body is still flesh.

“Then,” the Alter Rebbe said to his grandson, “when my teacher heard that because of the body various thoughts and doubts may occur to man spontaneously, he was relieved.”

It is quite clear that in the intervening years great changes have taken place. Though our fathers, the rebbes in their respective generations, blazed a broad and paved path of Chassidut and chassidic living, still in our day the intellects have diminished, hearts have contracted and shrunk. This is evident in the intellectual grasp and profundity, in the “service of the heart,” and in the improvement of character. However the pure faith, the beloved earnestness, by the kindness of G‑d and thanks to the merit of the rebbes, today as then can bring life, a penetrating enthusiasm for Torah, fulfilment of mitzvot and the acquisition of fine traits of character.