When he arrived in the vicinity of Kiev, [the Maggid] met scholarly Jews who told him that some distance away, in the direction of Bukovina, there lived a great tzaddik and miracle-worker. At first, he paid no attention to these stories.

Upon traveling further he arrived in the village of Zaslov. Following his usual habit, he went directly to the beis hamedrash; this occurred on a Tuesday afternoon during the summertime, in early Av. Upon entering the beis hamedrash, he noticed a Jew standing there wearinghis tallis and tefillin. At first he assumed that he was one of the ten scholars who study all day while wearing tallis and tefillin. But when he put down his baggage and sat down to rest a bit, he discovered that the Jew was actually davening, and was then up to the blessings of Kerias Shema.

He was quite surprised by this, for never in all his life had he heard of someone still reciting the blessings of Kerias Shema on a summer’s day in the afternoon. Some time later several elderly Jews and a few young folk arrived; each of them sat down to study by himself. These Jews greeted him with Sholom Aleichem,” and inquired whether he had already eaten lunch. During their conversation he became aware that these Jews were accomplished scholars: he heard from them some novel Torah insights that pleased him greatly.

Between Minchah and Maariv they studied Aggadah; this was the first time in his life that he heard Aggadah studied on such a high level. He himself had studied much Mussar and many works that expound the Torah metaphorically, but never had he heard study such as that! The Jew whom he had seen davening earlier departed after Maariv; he was quite distressed at not having taken the opportunity to discuss Torah study with him. Some of the other Jews also left right after Maariv, but several of them remained in the beis hamedrash. They all went into the side-room, where they lay down on benches.

Later, many people arrived for Chatzos, and when Chatzos was finished the chevrah Tehillim members began to assemble. These were simple Jews: shopkeepers, merchants, villagers, butchers, tailors, cobblers, coachmen, and craftsmen of various sorts. It was a delight to hear them reciting Tehillim with such warmth; their davening too, was different from in [the maggid’s] country.

He spent three weeks in that village, during which he became quite intimate with the Torah scholars: they told him their novel Torah insights, and he told them his. It was there — in the village of Zaslov — that he first heard it explicitly said that the great tzaddik and gaon was called “the Baal Shem Tov.” He also discovered that all the local Torah scholars and the simple Jews were disciples of the Baal Shem Tov; in their own dialect they referred to themselves as “chassidim” of the Baal Shem Tov.

One day there was excitement in the beis hamedrash: two emissaries of the Baal Shem Tov — the tzaddikim Reb Nachman Horodenker and Reb David Furkas — arrived on a mission from the Rebbe. The Baal Shem Tov had instructed them to raise the sum of sixty gold florins that very day. This sum was needed for his Pidyon Sh’vuyim Fund; the entire sixty florins had to be delivered immediately by special messenger, for time was short.

The emissaries arrived just as the people were finishing Tehillim. As soon as the emissaries finished speaking, a list was drawn up then and there of all residents of the town who were the Baal Shem Tov’s chassidim. A Rabbinical Court was constituted to assess how much each citizen could afford to contribute. This court appointed collectors to go to people’s homes immediately and collect the imposed tax. If there was anyone who did not have sufficient cash on hand, they were to take from him some article of value as collateral until the sum was paid in cash.

On that day the sunrise minyan began davening very late, but they nevertheless davened with much joy. [The maggid] thought that their happiness resembled that of Rabbi Eliezer, about whom the Talmud says:1 “He would first give a penny to the poor, and only then would he daven.” But [the maggid] didn’t understand [the reason for such exceptional joy. After all,] they could donate to charity every day!

The agents and some of the scholars in the beis hamedrash departed to immerse themselves in the mikveh, according to the custom of the people called “chassidim.” Upon their return, each of them began studying and was soon lost in thought; it was quite some time before they actually began their prayers. This was the first time in his life that the maggid had seen such davening. He had never even imagined that anyone could daven the way Reb Nachman Horodenker did.

Within less than three hours, the collectors who had gone to collect the tax returned to the beis hamedrash with the full amount of sixty gold florins. They had also drawn up a ledger in which they had recorded the names of those who had paid their assessment in cash, those who had made pledges and given collateral, and those who had given loans guaranteed by the collateral taken from those who had not yet paid.

The collectors waited for the court to convene. However, the Jews who constituted the court were busy davening, and were so engrossed in their prayers that they neither heard nor saw that the collectors had returned. Several collectors voted to approach the judges and report that they had accomplished their mission; others disagreed, saying that it was forbidden to interrupt them in their prayers, and they must wait until the davening was finished.

“Each moment is precious!” declared those who voted to approach the judges and inform them that the mission was accomplished. “[If we do so,] we can send the special messenger out with the money that much sooner. Alas! A family has been imprisoned, and every moment is precious.”

“Idiots!” declared those who voted not to interrupt the davening. “Do you imagine that the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov is unaware that the tax has already been collected? Although he needs our money, it is only out of his love for us that the Rebbe has given us the privilege of participating in the great mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim.

Just then, wailing was heard in the antechamber of the beis hamedrash. Several women whose husbands were not at home had arrived: one was a tailor who worked somewhere in the country; one was a peddler who went from place to place with a pack full of merchandise; one was a teacher at an inn.

[These women] had heard that the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov had sent agents to collect contributions for a great mitzvah. Since no one had approached them to ask for a contribution, they had come themselves, bringing pledges (for they had no cash on hand). One had brought her candlesticks, one had brought a Kiddush-and-Havdalah goblet, another had brought a down-stuffed pillow.

The collectors, in turn, declared that their mission was to demand cash or pledges from those whose names appeared on the assessment list given to them by the court. From people whose names did not appear on the list, they — the collectors — had no authority to accept cash or pledges. Upon hearing that their husbands’ names were not even mentioned on the list, the women raised such a cry that even the tzaddikim — Reb Nachman and Reb David — heard it, and became very frightened.

When the members of the court learned that the collectors had returned with their mission accomplished, they hurried through the rest of their prayers. Against their better judgment (for they knew the husbands to be very impoverished chassidim), they accepted the pledges from the women. An hour before noon, the special messenger was dispatched to bring the sixty gold florins for pidyon sh’vuyim to the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov. This messenger was a shoe-patcher by trade (he was not a real cobbler, and could not stitch together an entire shoe, but he was skilled enough to patch a hole).

When the Baal Shem Tov’s agents — the tzaddikim Reb Nachman and Reb David — finished davening, a feast was prepared in honor of the great privilege the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov had bestowed upon them. The Rebbe loved them so much that he had given them the privilege of participating in the mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim; he was so devoted to the Zaslover Chassidim that he had sent to them the two famous tzaddikim, Reb Nachman and Reb David. The feast consisted of dark bread, a few herrings, some pickles, and a bottle of liquor. All the chassidim were in such a joyful mood: you can’t imagine how great their delight was. They sang joyous niggunim and they danced, all in honor of simchah shel mitzvah.

The tzaddikim, Reb Nachman and Reb David, delivered some teachings of their own and repeated some they had heard from the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov. The teachings were short but very profound, and they referred to many Kabbalistic concepts. Between these teachings, the audience sang for a long time. Among chassidim, singing is an occasion for self-examination. After each teaching and each story that they hear, they sing a niggun. As they sing, they meditate deeply about the lesson to be learned from the teaching or story they have just heard.

When the feast was finished, the tzaddik Reb Nachman spoke about the women who had wept while begging the collectors to accept their contribution toward the sum the Rebbe had assessed the Zaslover Chassidim. “The Rebbe,” said the tzaddik Reb Nachman, “is very fond of simple Jews. He says that a simple Jew who recites a chapter of Tehillim with his whole heart and sincerely loves his fellow Jew is favored by the Supreme King more than great tzaddikim.

“Concerning [G‑d’s dealings with] great tzaddikim, Scripture says,2 ‘All around Him a great storm rages.’ [Our Sages comment]:3 ‘This teaches us that the Holy One is demanding of those who are close to him [the tzaddikim] to within a hair’s breadth.’ Concerning simple Jews, on the other hand, [the Talmud states]:4 ‘The Holy One does not impose an excessive burden upon His creatures.’ It does not matter how well one performs, so long as he performs with sincerity; since a simple Jew does everything sincerely, he gives the Holy One much satisfaction.

“How profoundly genuine those women’s tears were! Their sole desire was for their husbands’ names to be included in the list of those assessed to contribute money for the great mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim. A mitzvah is so precious, and the Rebbe so sacred to them, that when their husbands’ names were omitted from the list their poor hearts broke and they burst out weeping. How precious such tears are to the Master of the World; how sweet and delightful they are to the Angel Michael and his 180 thousand legions of defending angels! Such genuine heartfelt tears can annul all evil decrees (may G‑d preserve us).”

The tzaddik Reb Nachman then related an awe-inspiring story about a great evil decree against an entire Jewish community (may All-Merciful G‑d protect us). When a certain woman uttered a few truly sincere words, that came from the depths of her heart while she wept profusely, the entire decree was annulled.

“If only we could weep on the holy day of Yom Kippur with the same sort of tears with which our own women wept!” Reb Nachman concluded.

During the several days the tzaddikim and geonim Reb Nachman and Reb David spent in Zaslov, the maggid saw and heard things he had never before seen or heard. The lessons from the stories told by the two agents sent by the Baal Shem Tov to assess his chassidim in Zaslov the sum of sixty gold florins for pidyon sh’vuyim made a long-lasting impression on him.

The maggid began to explain the greatness of the two agents, Reb Nachman and Reb David: their genius in the study of the revealed aspects of the Torah, their broad knowledge of Kabbalah, their great piety, and the awesome humility of these two tzaddikim and geonim. Not only were they completely oblivious to their own importance, but they actually took a Rebbe for themselves, heeding the advice of the holy Mishnah,5 “Appoint a master over yourself,” and fulfilling the words of the Mishnah,6 “May the fear of your mentor be as great as the fear of Heaven.” These same tzaddikim and geonim were disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, who had sent them as his agents to his chassidim to enable them to participate in the great mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim.

“Listen carefully as we consider just how great an event this was. In a rural settlement, somewhere beyond a small village more than two hundred miles away, there stood an inn that a tenant had leased from the squire. The tenant earned an ample income, which enabled him to hire a teacher for his children and eventually to marry them off.

“Suddenly, disaster struck (may G‑d save us): he had no money to pay the rent. The first missed payment was forgiven, but when a second payment was not made the squire seized the tenant, his wife, and a few of their small children, and threw them into prison as hostages until such time as the rent was paid. In response to this opportunity for pidyon sh’vuyim, the Baal Shem Tov sent the two great geonim and tzaddikim to his Zaslover Chassidim to collect contributions toward the necessary sum of sixty gold florins.”

The maggid thoroughly explained the greatness of the mitzvah of charity in general, and of pidyon sh’vuyim in particular. “How very much [the Baal Shem Tov] loves this mitzvah!” exclaimed the maggid. “He demonstrated his love by sending agents to his disciples several hundred miles away from the place where the tragedy of the imprisoned tenant farmer occurred (may G‑d save us). How much ahavas Yisrael he demonstrated by this mission! When a catastrophe struck a Jewish family (may it not happen to us or to any other Jewish family), he notified the Jewish community just so they could share in the victims’ suffering and help them to pay their ransom.”

Next, the maggid gave a detailed description of the enthusiasm with which the mitzvah was done: Upon the arrival of the agents and the delivery of their message, a list of contributors was immediately drawn up and a court was appointed to oversee the collection. The maggid devoted an entire segment of his sermon to the story of the chassidic women who begged, with heartfelt tears, that their contributions be accepted toward the great mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim that the Rebbe had bestowed upon them.

“What a sight to behold!” exclaimed the maggid, as he described the women’s terrified faces when the collectors informed them that their husbands’ names did not appear on the assessment list. “It is the custom among chassidim that whenever the Rebbe requests that a charitable assessment be drawn up, a list of the contributors’ names is sent for him to see. The Rebbe then reads the names of the chassidim, and their families, who obeyed his instructions. How much faith in the sages was demonstrated by the women’s tears! Such innocent faith is very precious to the Creator, and gives Him much satisfaction.”

This story, told by the maggid at the end of his sermon, was repeated throughout the city. Even the women in the women’s gallery heard the story; even the simplest Jews (who were unable to comprehend the intricacies of the sermon) managed to grasp the moral. On the second Shabbos, the entire population of the city, both men and women, came. Even the most outstanding scholars — who rarely attended the sermons — came. The shul was so crowded that one entered at his own risk!

On that second Shabbos, the maggid related how he had gone to visit the Baal Shem Tov. The journey had led him through villages and settlements where most of the inhabitants were disciples of the Baal Shem Tov; thus, he managed to hear many wonderful tales that amazed him. Eventually he arrived in Mezhibuzh, where he spent the entire High Holiday period and the festival of Sukkos. There, he discovered that everything he had previously heard represented only a small fraction of the great miracles of the Baal Shem Tov that he himself was able to witness, and the profound novel Torah insights that he himself heard.

For three weeks, the maggid ended each Shabbos sermon with the story of how the Baal Shem Tov had revealed himself, after having first disguised himself as a common person. When the Baal Shem Tov revealed himself as a teacher, many geonim were fiercely opposed to him, but they soon became aware of his great scholarship, his genius, and his saintly character. As a result, many of these same geonim became his disciples.

“Now,” said the maggid, “more than twenty years have passed since the Baal Shem Tov became famous throughout that region, and he has since acquired tens of thousands of disciples. Among them are hundreds of geonim and tzaddikim who travel from place to place and from city to city as the Baal Shem Tov’s agents. They encourage the Jews to study Torah and fulfill mitzvos with enthusiasm. Ahavas Yisrael is one of the primary forms of avodah among the Baal Shem Tov’s disciples. Each of his disciples is required to have a close comrade. The Baal Shem Tov implanted ahavas Yisrael even among the most simple Jews, urging them to view one another only in a favorable light.”

After Maariv on the first day of Selichos, the maggid concluded the story of the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples, that he had begun telling on the second Shabbos of Elul. In that day’s sermon on the verse,7 “If a person commits a sin,” the maggid explained the verse:8 “Do not hate your fellowman in your heart; you must admonish your fellowman, but do not commit a sin while doing so.” The Ibn Ezra and the Ramban explain: If one bears hatred of his fellow man in his heart — even if it is because of that person’s improper conduct — he commits a sin; but one who loves his fellow Jew fulfills a mitzvah.

“It is forbidden to bear a grudge against any Jew, even if his conduct is objectionable,” the maggid continued in his sermon from the lectern. “Otherwise, one violates the commandment, ‘You shall not hate your fellowman in your heart.’ The proper course is, ‘You must admonish your fellow Jew’ — state your objections to him clearly, ‘but do not commit a sin while so doing.’ ”