We have all heard the story. One Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem Tov was praying with his students in a small Polish village. With his spiritual vision, the Baal Shem Tov had detected that harsh heavenly judgments had been decreed against the Jewish people, so he and his students were crying out to G‑d, imploring Him to rescind these harsh decrees and grant the Jews a year of blessing.

Their deep feeling took hold of all the villagers, and everyone rent his heart in prayer. One of these villagers was a simple shepherd boy. He did not know how to read; he could barely say the letters of the alef-beis, the Hebrew alphabet. He could not read the words of the prayer book, or even mimic the responses of the other congregants. Yet he felt moved to pray with the others, so he opened the prayer book and began to recite the letters alef, beis, gimmel, reading the entire alphabet. He then called out to G‑d: “This is all I can do, G‑d. You know how the prayers should be pronounced. Please arrange the letters in the proper way.”

This simple, heartfelt plea resounded powerfully within the Heavenly court. G‑d rescinded all the harsh decrees and granted the Jews blessing and good fortune.

There are many variations of the story. Some have the shepherd boy crowing like a rooster, others calling out “Father, Father.” All share the same fundamental message. The shepherd’s wordless prayer expresses the inner G‑dly core which we all possess. For that reason, there were no words to his prayer. It was not only that he didn’t know the words; the words would have limited his statement, for all words originate in the mind. The essence of G‑d and the essence of the G‑dly spark within every man is above reason; it cannot be comprehended.

The story is characteristic of the message the Baal Shem Tov conveyed to the Jewish people. He made the Jewish people aware and gave them the potential to tap this inner spiritual potential.

It is explained1 that before the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the Jewish people were in a state of faint. Now when a person is in a state of faint, one of the most common remedies is to call his name in his ear. Calling his name awakens the inner core of his soul, a point which is above the person’s ordinary level of consciousness and hence, has the power to rouse him, even from a state of faint.

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov was named Yisrael, for his birth called forth the name of the Jewish people as a whole, summoning up their inner energies, breathing fresh vitality into every dimension of their lives.

Enriching the Intellect

The vitality which the Baal Shem Tov endowed the Jewish people also permeated their intellectual potential, expanding its horizons. By nature, intellect is limited; every idea has its scope. By showing the Jews how to tap the essential point of the soul which transcends intellect, the Baal Shem Tov broadened the range of intellect and allowed it to appreciate concepts that are, in truth, infinite in nature. Thus he redefined many fundamentals of the Jewish faith, providing explanations for concepts that had previously been shackled by mortal reason and therefore, had never been understood in a consummate manner.

These teachings, revealed by the Baal Shem Tov and his successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch, in seminal form, found full expression in the teachings of Chabad Chassidus. The Baal Shem Tov expressed the germ of many essential Jewish ideas and the Chabad Rebbeim endowed them with depth, breadth, and form. In each successive generation, these concepts took on additional richness as each of the Rebbeim added his insights and analyses.

Not By Chance

To exemplify this process, we have chosen the concept of Hashgachah Peratis, commonly translated as Divine providence. The Baal Shem Tov taught:

Divine providence governs every minute creation… [even] a fallen leaf that has been tossed over and over by the wind… or a bit of straw which someone used when thatching a roof some years ago…. To move them from one place to another… a stormwind breaks out, shaking heaven and earth in the middle of a warm sunny day and brings to fulfillment the Divine providence that governs this small stray leaf and old wisp of straw.2

The movement of a single blade of grass in the depths of a forest, on a stately mountain, or in a deep valley where man has never passed… to its right or to its left… is determined according to Divine providence….

Furthermore, the movement of this particular blade of grass affects… the creation in its entirety… [allowing] G‑d’s intent in the creation to come to fulfillment.3

These concepts, though revolutionary within the context of Jewish philosophy, are fundamental to the concept of G‑d’s oneness, enabling us to see His hand in the unfolding of history and in each phase of our individual lives.

Drawing heavily on the works of the previous Rebbeim, this text presents four treatises of the Rebbe in which he compares the Baal Shem Tov’s understanding of Hashgachah Peratis to the conceptions which existed previously and highlights and resolves the differences between them.

Those treatises are published as translations,4 enabling a reader to appreciate not only the Rebbe’s ideas, but also his style of presentation and conceptual development. In addition, we have prefaced the text with an overview which presents other sources and synthesizes the subjects in an easily readable form.

Practice as Well as Theory

No subject in Judaism is intended to be conceived of as merely an intellectual abstract. Surely, this applies in regard to Divine providence. The awareness that there is a Divine plan directing our lives should first and foremost motivate us to play an active role in bringing that plan to fruition. Each of us has a unique contribution to make in completing the intent for which all existence was brought into being

Chai Elul , the day of the publication of this volume, marks 300 years since the birth of the Baal Shem Tov. The teachings of the Baal Shem Tov are the wellsprings which when spread to the outer reaches will prepare the world and the Jewish people for the coming of Mashiach.5 They contain the spiritual insights and energy which empower us to consummate G‑d’s intent for creation. May the publication of this text play a role in furthering this purpose and hastening the coming of the time when “those who repose in the dust will arise and sing,”6 and we will again hear teachings from the Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov; may this be in the immediate future.

Sichos In English

Chai Elul 5758
The 300th Anniversary
of the Baal Shem Tov’s Birth