The synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzhibuzh, Ukraine.
In honor of the Baal Shem Tov’s Yahrtzeit, which occurs on the first day of Shavuos, we present a fascinating story of the legendary founder of the Chasidic movement, written by renowned author Rabbi Sholom Dovber Avtzon:
On one occasion, the Alter Rebbe asked of those who were at a gathering, if anyone knows a truly amazing story of the Baal Shem Tov. [A miracle, that only he and no other tzaddik, had the ability to accomplish].
One of the elder chassidim replied I know of one such wondrous miracle.
The Baal Shem Tov would often toivel in the mikva, either before or after saying tikkun chatzos. Often this meant to go to the river and toivel in it. During the frigid winter, that also meant first breaking through the ice on top of the river, and making a large enough opening in it and then toiveling in the frigid water.
One such winter night, the Baal Shem Tov remained in the water much longer than usual and the gabbai noticed that the torch he had was about to flicker out. The fire of the torch, not only illuminated their way, but it also served as a source of warmth for the Baal Shem Tov, when he came out of the freezing water.
Nervously, he cried out to the Baal Shem Tov that the torch was going to extinguish itself any moment.
The Baal Shem Tov told him to take a large icicle and light it. The gabbai did so and it burned exactly as a regular torch.
That is indeed a remarkable story replied the Alter Rebbe, but that does not show the unique greatness of the Baal Shem Tov. The Gemorah tells us that something extremely similar occurred with the great Tanna Reb Chanina ben Dosa.
One erev Shabbos Reb Chaninah’s daughter sadly informed him that they don’t have any oil to use to light the candles in honor of the Shabbos.
Reb Chanina inquired, “And what liquid do we have in the house?”
She answered; “We have a measurement of vinegar.”
Reb Chanina instructed her to fill the container with the vinegar. He then said “The One who said that oil [has the ability] to burn, can say to this vinegar that when it is lit, it would burn and give off light. And indeed that is what happened.
True Reb Channina was of the greatest taanaim and to be compared to Reb Chanina is indeed an extraordinary accomplishment. However, that doesn’t show the unique greatness of the Baal Shem Tov.
Does anyone else have a truly remarkable story?
Another chossid said, I will say a story.
There was a wealthy Jew, whose only daughter was becoming of marriageable age. While there were many promising young talmidei chachomim in his own town, he desired to have an exceptional talmid chocham as a son in law. After much effort, he indeed found one such young man. The couple were married, settled down and were extremely happy. The young man learned in the beis hamidrash and grew in his learning and Torah knowledge. Everything was going as desired.
Some years passed, and the wealthy father-in-law began noticing small changes in his son-in-laws conduct and observance of mitzvos. At first, he tried to dismiss them as insignificant changes, and perhaps his learned son-in-law has reasons to conduct himself in this new manner. After all he knows much more than I do, so who am I to question him!
But as the weeks and months passed, he began noticing that he was taking off much more time from his learning and was seen in the company of others who were known to be completely non-observant. This was a situation that he was no longer able to ignore and pretend all is well.
So one day, he sat down with his son-in-law and asked him, what caused this drastic change. Is he perhaps unhappy about something or is something or someone bothering him?
The son-in-law replied, I am extremely happy and fortunate. Your daughter is an excellent and kind hearted person. She is the perfect wife, and you are very gracious to us. A man couldn’t ask for more.
But you want to know if everything is perfect, what caused these changes? I will tell you. In my learning, I began having some questions about Hashem’s ability to do certain things that our sages stated had happened. I noticed that some of the great commentators also wrote that these things are exaggerations. So I no longer knew what is real and what is being said as a way of a moshol (a parable or metaphor).
Whoever I asked either replied that those are dangerous questions, that one is not allowed to ask or gave me such weak answers and explanations, that they themselves admitted weren’t complete answers, they weren’t satisfactory. So now I have my doubts about many things, such as does Hashem really care about such minute details, for example, when you wash netilas yodaim does it have to go until the wrist and a drop off makes it invalid or it isn’t so important. And therefore I decided not to do it all.
The father-in-law was torn with grief. This is the son-in-law that he had hand-picked for his wonderful daughter, who is so proper in her observance of every mitzvah. Is everything lost chas v’sholom. No! It can’t be, he said! I must find a way to correct this.
Turning to his son-in-law he said, my dear son-in-law, you are much more learned than I, and if the great talmidei chachomim of the town couldn’t answer your questions satisfactorily, I for sure don’t have the ability. However, I am asking you one thing, please come with me to a great sage and allow him to answer and clarify everything.
Wanting to please his father-in-law, especially as he always has the ability to say the answer this sage gave, was not a real convincing or even good answer, he agreed.
The father-in-law didn’t waste any time, but immediately set out with his son-in-law to see the Baal Shem Tov. They arrived in Mezibuzh on a bright sunny day and the father-in-law poured out his troubled heart to the Baal Shem Tov and pleaded with him that he does whatever is in his ability to bring the son-in-law back to the ways of Hashem.
The Baal Shem Tov asked them to join him on a small journey. With the father-in-law sitting on his right and the son-in-law sitting on his left, they left Mezibuzh. Once they were out of the city and on the road in midst of an open field, the Baal Shem Tov turned to the son-in-law and said, “Young man can it rain now?”
Looking up to the clear blue sky, the young man replied, “No, it can’t as there isn’t a cloud in sight.”
The Baal Shem Tov said, “And I say it can rain!”
Looking up once again, the young man looked in all directions to make sure that he saw correctly and indeed there wasn’t a cloud in sight, not even a little fluffy white cloud. So he smugly retorted and said, “That is an impossibility! No way in the world can it rain here at this very moment.”
The Baal Shem Tov smiled and said, “And I say it will rain momentarily!”
A few seconds later the windows of heaven opened and a deluge of rain came pouring down. The young man was bewildered at this happening. Not only is it pouring from a cloudless sky, but the Baal Shem Tov’s wagon remained completely dry. This is truly miraculous and beyond human comprehension.
Being an extremely intelligent person, he realized why the Baal Shem Tov showed him this and didn’t try to answer his questions verbally. Far be it that the tzaddik was merely showing off to him his powers. It was much more than that; he had clearly demonstrated, that stories of our sages which are beyond human comprehension, doesn’t mean that they never occurred or are not real. There are many happenings that human intellect says one way, but in actuality they happened the opposite way – the way he thought was impossible.
Once this question was answered, he realized that all of his other questions and doubts were based on this premise. And therefore if this was resolved they all have nothing to stand on.
Full of remorse he turned to the Baal Shem Tov and beseeched of him, to guide him back to the way of Hashem.
Hearing this, the Alter Rebbe said, that story indeed shows greatness of the Baal Shem Tov.
Compiler’s note: the Mashpia from whom I heard this story continued, possibly the explanation of the greatness of this story is based on another story that the gemorah related about Reb Chanina ben Dosa. Of whom the gemorah says that Hashem calls him “Chanina My son”.
Once Reb Chanina was travelling and it was raining. Reb Chanina davenned to Hashem and said, “All the people who are in their homes are indeed happy and grateful; as this rain is needed for their crops to grow. However, I am suffering from it. I am becoming wet and uncomfortable in my travels. Hashem heard his prayers and the rain stopped immediately.
When Reb Chanina arrived home, he once again davenned. But this time he said, Chanina is comfortable, but everyone else is in pain, they need the rain. Once again his prayers were heard and accepted and it began to rain.
But what do we see, as great as Reb Chanina was, he was able to either stop the rain or cause it to rain. The Baal Shem Tov was able to do both things simultaneously. Such was his greatness.
I will conclude with the following; on the first year after his histalkus, the talmidim gathered and many of them related a miraculous story of the Baal Shem Tov that they personally were privy to. That night the Baal Shem Tov came to one of his talmidim and said, “My greatness is not my ability to do miracles, it is my yiras shamayim even on the smallest detail of a halachah.
May each one of us, strive to emulate this each on their own level.