This time last year I had the opportunity to visit a small town in Western Ukraine, called Medzibush. Driving on the narrow unpaved roads, passing the locals many of whom were riding horse and wagons, you get the sense that not much has changed over the past two hundred years. However, there is one thing that makes this place unique. It is the hometown of one of the greatest figures of modern Jewish history, namely the Baal Shem Tov.
On my way to the ancient synagogue, I was struck by how one individual could have made such a huge impact on millions of Jewish people worldwide and which continues to reverberate resoundingly until today.
The key to unlocking this mystery was in fact given to us by the Baal Shem Tov himself. When asked which teaching more than any other shaped him, he responded “Just before I was orphaned from my father at the age of five, he said to me, "Yisrolik my son, fear nothing but G‑d alone. Love every single Jew, without exception, with the full depth of your heart and with the fire of your soul, no matter who he or she is or how he or she behaves."
As I entered the synagogue close to midnight and walked over to the exact spot where he recited his legendary prayers, I tried to focus on the words imparted to him by his father, which transformed him into a legend. It was difficult not to be deeply moved by the utter simplicity and at the same time by the profundity of those words.
Indeed they encapsulate the most important truths offered in all "self help" literature.
His father was telling his young son the following:
Firstly, if you want to live fully you cannot be afraid of anyone or anything. You can only achieve this by believing and trusting in G-d as the only force behind all events.
To the degree that we trust in G-d, we will not fear man. To the degree that we do not fear man, we will be able to place our trust in G-d.
Secondly, by being unafraid of others, this allows us to love.
Conversely, to the degree that we are afraid of others, this will incapacitate our ability to love.
The message is both stunningly simple as it is powerful.
The challenge as with everything is in the application. The Baal Shem Tov became a paradigm because this was the way he lived.
From a very young age he roamed fearlessly in the fields and forests. He explored, he prayed, he studied. He engaged and befriended both the simple folk and the mystics. He was able to do this, because one who is in touch with himself, is able to connect with others.
Most importantly his story is a story of love. He was able to transform the Jewish world by expressing an unadulterated love to all whom he encountered, irrespective of their condition or circumstances. He functioned as a conduit between man and G-d. He transmitted G-d’s love for his children to each and every Jew. In so doing, hundreds of thousands of Jews, particularly amongst the simple folk in his era, who were neglected by the establishment, reconnected with G-d and their people.
Tomorrow, the eighteenth day of the month of Elul, marks the anniversary of the day when this great luminary came down into this world. Let us get to know this legend, his stories and his teachings. Let us get to know ourselves.