Yisroel ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, was easily one of the greatest mystics that ever lived. He lived in the 1700s and his greatest accomplishment was his dedicated followers. The Baal Shem Tov brought awe to the world around him and Hasidic Judaism begins with his example.
His life matches that of a Lamed Vavnick. Born poor into poverty and eventually became an orphan. He had vivid visions of God and then began teaching. It was the amazement of others that bring us to believe the Baal Shem Tov was a Lamed Vavnick. While his legacy remains undeniable, many of his writings were not written down by him. The Baal Shem Tov left this part of his life, maybe the most crucial part, hidden. Later, many of his followers recorded aspects of his life and teachings.
Today there is a resurgence in Hasidut. The belief in Kabbalah and mysticism is seen as a powerful connection to God. Below is one story, from the Kabbalistic Mahzor, from the Baal Shem Tov that I wanted to include:
“The great 18th-century Kabbalist the Baal Shem Tov was known as the Rabbi of Thieves. All the crooks, scoundrels and swindlers claim him as their rabbi. One thief in particular, known as Moshe the Gunnif would rob, steal, and pickpocket the townspeople every week. When the authorities began closing in on him, Moshe would hightail it over to the Baal Shem Tov for a special blessing. Mysteriously, the police would suddenly forget about the robberies and move on to another case. This relationship between the Kabbalist and Moshe continued for years. Each week, Moshe would commit a series of crimes to earn money. Each week, the Baal Shem Tov would invoke a special blessing that literally wiped Moshe’s slate clean. One day news arrived that a wealthy nobleman would be passing through the town. Rumor had it that the nobleman always carried large amounts of gold coins and other valuables. Moshe couldn’t resist. A robbery of this magnitude would make him wealthy for life. To top it all off, he had perfect set-up. He would hold up the nobleman in his horse and carriage just before he entered the town. Then he’d steal a few bags full of gold coins and flee the scene. Before the nobleman made it over to the authorities, Moshe would already be at the Baal Shem Tov’s house. HE would get the magic blessing and, once again, be scot-free. A few days later, the nobleman arrives and Moshe pulls off the robbery. When he arrives at the home of the Baal Shem Tov, he is in shock. His beloved rabbi has passed on. Moshe is crushed. Worse, he’s scared out of his mind because the authorities have launched a town-wide search! Mohe sneaks off to the cemetery and find the grave of the Kabbalist. He falls to the ground and begins wailing “How could you leave me here helpless!” Moshe cries out. “You were my only hope! I was your devout student.” Moshe continues crying and eventually falls asleep. During a dream, the Baal Shem Tov comes to him. “Moshe, do not worry,” he says. “I will make sure you are looked after. want you to go to my grandson, my successor, when you awaken from this dream. Tell him I sent you. He will give you the blessing.” Moshe is still worried. “He will never believe me,” he cries out. “How will he know that you really sent me?” The Baal Shem Tov then tells Moshe one of the great hidden secrets of the Torah, a mystical insight that only those who learn in the Garden of Eden could possibly know. Moshe is filled with ecstasy beyond words upon hearing this wisdom. “When my grandson hears this secret,” says the Baal Shem Tov, “he will know for certain that I have sent you.” When Moshe awakens, he immediately rushes over to see the grandson. As the hidden secret of the Torah roll off his lips, Moshe feels the warm and pure Light dripping off every letter. At that moment, Moshe knows he must change his ways forever. And he does. He soon becomes a great rabbi and wonderful teacher. Eventually, he becomes the successor to the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson. From this story we learn that none of us should ever consider ourselves too holy and pious to help those who we feel are on a lower level than ourselves. A true spiritual leader places himself on the same level as his students and finds only the spark of Light in everyone he meets. The Baal Shem Tov knew that his love for everyone, regardless of their character, would be an umbilical chord between them and God. If he refused to embrace the thief, there would be no chance fro Moshe to ever repent and return to the path of righteousness. We also learn that the stronger a person’s inclination is for negative behavior, that same person also has the greatest potential to achieve the highest good. All he has to do is transform his great desire to receive for the self alone into a desire to receive for the sake of sharing and helping others. It [is] this kind of mercy that God shows us on Yom Kippur.”