The Way to Medzibozh
As the reputation of the Baal Shem Tov grew, many joined the new Chassidic movement. But with growth came opposition, due to ignorance of the movement's true character. Certainly the Sabbaterian and Frankist false messianic movements, which had done enormous damage to Jewish life not long before, contributed to this apprehension. Chassidus was comparable to a beam of light at the edge of a forest: all who approached it did so very cautiously, to verify that it was indeed a friendly, welcoming inn and not a bandits' den.
R. Dov Ber had another reason to be wary of Chassidus. He viewed his ascetic practices as an important part of his Avodas HaShem. Tales of the wonders performed by the Baal Shem Tov, his emphasis on the joyous service of God, and his refection of abstention and asceticism could only increase the Maggid's suspicions of the new movement.
But the Maggid's asceticism continued to take its toll on his frail body. The pain in his legs was excruciating at times, and he and his family sought medical help throughout Europe. The doctors told him only an operation could help him, but he feared himself too feeble to undergo one. He tried various remedies, without success, and was relegated to walking on crutches. The pain did not bother him as much as the energy it sapped from his Torah studies.
Returning to the Baal Shem, R. Mendel told him, "I saw a beautiful 'vessel' in Turchin."
"I've seen him for years," replied the Baal Shem. "I yearn for him to come to me." Indeed, the Baal Shem Tov labored to win over the outstanding people destined by Providence to disseminate his teachings.
Meanwhile, the Maggid's family urged him to make the journey to Medzibozh. "How much longer will you endanger your health?" asked his wife, unable to see him in such pain. "How much longer will you stubbornly refuse to humble yourself with even one visit to the Baal Shem Tov? He works wonders! Surely he can cure you."
He finally agreed to go.
I'm told you have decided to come to me, to take refuge in the shadow of the fear of the Lord. May God's grace be upon you. You still doubt that you will accomplish your intended goal. I therefore implore you to ignore the vanities and lies of impulsive people, for they are baseless. It is not [as they say] with me. I wish only to help people, not to harm them. If, Heaven forbid, I don't find favor with you, the choice is yours. Heaven is my witness that your spirit will be doubly rewarded, the thirst of your soul will be quenched, and you will provide support for me as well. I have never written such a letter, but you have been chosen by HaShem to spread my teachings.... So abandon your stubbornness...and come to me. It will be good for us and for Klal Yisrael.
The Maggid sent a short reply confirming his plans and added the following postscript:
To tell the truth, I see an auspicious sign in the student who bears this letter. If R. Nachman of Horodenka is a holy Tzaddik, how much more so must his Rebbe be. Your talmid has breathed life into me, and I therefore wish you all the best.
The Baal Shem sent another letter to R. Dov Ber, saying:
Although I know you have opposed our ways, I hope that when you come, God willing, you will "taste the tree of life and live forever." there are very lofty matters to attend to, so come quickly and remain here.
Upon meeting the Baal Shem Tov, R. Dov Ber began to relate everything that had happened on the way. the Baal Shem interrupted him and continued the story himself, noting each problem with the wagon and where it had occurred.
The Maggid then asked for a cure for his sickness. "My horses don't eat matzos!" the Baal Shem scolded.
(The Zohar calls matzo the "food of faith and cure." The Baal Shem had hoped to provide R. Dov Ber with a spiritual cure, but his plan was ruined when the Maggid asked for a physical remedy. The "horse" could not "eat matzos.")
Bewildered, the Maggid broke into a sweat and went outside to collect himself. Spotting R. Yaakov of Onipol, he requested that R. Yaakov ask the Baal Shem why he hadn't fulfilled the mitzvah of loving the stranger. While he sympathized with the Maggid, R. Yaakov couldn't speak so harshly to his Rebbe - at least not directly. Instead, he passed through the Baal Shem's house, and on his way out he shouted, "A forlorn Jew sitting outside wants to know why the master doesn't love strangers." The Baal Shem immediately gathered ten men to placate R. Dov Ber.
Later, as the Maggid lay bedridden, the Baal Shem recited Tehillim by his side for two weeks. "At first I wanted to cure you through prayer," he told R. Dov Ber. "But now I see that I must apply a medicinal remedy."
In another version of the encounter, the Baal Shem offered the Maggid a choice of two cures: sheimos (a Kabbalistic remedy involving the names of God), which would give him immediate strength and vigor, or a medicinal treatment, which would take much longer and be far less effective. "I am unworthy of being healed by sheimos," the Maggid replied. His illness was cured medically, but he remained weak to the end of his life. The Baal Shem remarked that had the Maggid chosen the Kabbalistic treatment, he would have become healthy enough to "chop a wagonful of wood." Years later, when R. Dov Ber's frailty made his learning more and more difficult, he openly regretted his choice.
The Pnei Yehoshua was once learning when someone rushed into the Beis Medrash and announced that a man outside had asked to see him immediately on business. The Pnei Yehoshua went out, greeted the stranger, and asked him what was so urgent. "Your shochet has been selling treife meat for over ten years," the man replied breathlessly. "Send for him and see for yourself." With that, he sped off in his carriage before the Pnei Yehoshua could ask who he was. Later, when the shochet (slaughterer) finally confessed, the Pnei Yehoshua realized that the stranger must have been the famous Baal Shem Tov.
Some months later, the Baal Shem reappeared outside the Beis Medrash. This time the Pnei Yehoshua came out immediately and recognized him. "When R. Dov Ber lodges here, tell him in my name that his legs will not be well unless he comes to me," declared the Baal Shem. Again, he sped away.
When the Pnei Yehoshua moved to Frankfurt to serve as its rabbi, his son-in-law replaced him as rabbi of Lvov. Before his departure, the Pnei Yehoshua advised his son-in-law to consult R. Dov Ber whenever necessary and the Maggid developed a warm, stimulating relationship with the new rabbi of Lvov.
Obstinately ignoring his family's urgings to see the Baal Shem Tov, R. Dov Ber soon grew incurably lame. Desperate, his family asked the rabbi of Lvov to visit his sick friend. Perhaps he could convince him to go to the Baal Shem.
When he suggested to R. Dov Ber that he travel to the Baal Shem, the Maggid expressed his reservations about the "miracle-worker." "Why not go see for yourself?" the rabbi suggested. "Surely you cannot judge without seeing the Baal Shem in person."
This approach appealed to the Maggid, and he set out for Medzibozh. On the road, however, he began to wonder whether a scholar was permitted to take so much time from his studies. He consoled himself by anticipating that the Baal Shem Tov would surely impart the kind of divrei Torah befitting a Tzaddik who had inspired thousands of Jews.
"Once I was traveling with Alexi, the wagoneer," recalled the Baal Shem. "We came to the middle of the forest and there was no more hay for the horses. We didn't know what to do until, thank God, a non-Jew passed by with his horse and gave us some hay." With that the Baal Shem said Birkas HaMazon and the meal was over.
The Maggid was horrified. "Instead of delving into the depths of man's soul," he thought, "he speaks about horses!" He considered absenting himself from the second Shabbos seudah, lest he waste even more time. But he didn't want to embarrass his host and hoped that this time things would be different.
The next day, the Baal Shem recollected how he and Alexi had once traveled through parched fields under a scorching sun, with no water to drink and no spring or well in sight. They wouldn't reach the nearest town until evening. Suddenly, like a Godsend, a non-Jew appeared carrying water buckets. When they asked what he was doing in such a remote place, he replied, "I don't know myself. My feudal lord seems to have lost his senses. He sent me on a three-day journey through the forest and fields with these buckets, and today is the third day."
The Maggid understood that these stories were intended to demonstrate HaShem's providence. It was the Baal Shem's way of instilling emunah in people by means of parables and mundane stories. What he didn't know was that they contained deep wisdom as well.
He decided to skip Shalosh Seudos and return home immediately after Shabbos, without even seeking a cure or spiritual guidance.
The Maggid studied the passage for a few minutes and proceeded with his explanation. "You don't know anything!" declared the Baal Shem. The Maggid reread the passage. "My interpretation is correct," he maintained. "Tell me yours and we'll see who's right."
The Baal Shem grasped the book, and his face began to shine. He told R. Dov Ber to stand. Light filled the room, and the Baal Shem was encircled by fire. The Maggid saw angels appear as the Baal Shem recited their names, and suddenly he understood the lofty secrets hidden within the text.
At this point, the Maggid could no longer stand, and the Baal Shem showed him to a bed. The Maggid later related, "I no longer saw him, but for two hours I heard sounds and beheld awesome fire and lightning. I became very frightened and fainted."
The Baal Shem later told the Maggid, "Your interpretation was correct, but you were learning only the 'body' of the hidden Torah. Now you have penetrated its 'soul.'"
R. Dov Ber remained in Medzibozh for an extended period, and became a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, learning great wisdom and deep secrets, and clinging to him with his heart and soul.
When R. Dov Ber had returned from Medzibozh the rabbi of Lvov asked his friend how he had laid to rest all his doubts about the Baal Shem Tov. R. Dov Ber answered by recounting his mystical experience with the Eitz Chaim. "I looked into the Baal Shem's face and thought, 'Could this be a creature like us, a mortal? Perhaps he has fallen from Heaven.' This resolved all my doubts, for one can question his fellow man, but not a Heavenly creature."
The meeting of the founder of Chassidus and his successor was both fateful and mysterious. Like most Torah scholars, R. Dov Ber fully expected a meeting of minds, an incisive debate, an exchange of ideas and chiddushim. What he heard, instead, were cryptic words and seemingly simple stories. This meeting was, for the next head of the Chassidic movement, an unforgettable lesson in the power of simplicity and the limitations of a scholarship which does not reach into the inner soul of the Torah.
Despite his poor health, the Maggid learned with the Baal Shem in Medzibozh every night. In these lessons the Baal Shem passed on to him many secrets and much hidden knowledge: the language of birds and trees, Divine Names, and Unifications. Together, they pored over the Kabbalistic works Ma'ayan Chochmah and Raziel HaMalach.
Once, learning with the Baal Shem became so intense that the Maggid fainted and unconscious for several hours. The Baal Shem went to the mikveh three times that day to pray for his recovery.
On another occasion, he declared, "If the Maggid were healthy enough to immerse in the mikveh, Moshiach would come immediately, for this act would inspire mankind to repent."
The Maggid eventually wanted to return home, but the Baal Shem Tov pleaded with him to stay: "Don't leave, I need you. For you are like one who draws from a wellspring and causes it to replenish itself. An unused well can dry up, but one whose waters are drawn gushes abundantly."
"People think of my grandfather, the Maggid, as a student of the Baal Shem Tov," related R. Yisrael of Rizhin. "It was not so: they taught each another. But my grandfather was weak and sickly, while the Baal Shem was strong and healthy, and able to absorb more."
The Baal Shem once expressed this himself to R. Dov Ber: "What is the difference between you and me? We can both bring benefits and blessings to the Jews. But I can effect this by merely thinking, whereas you must marshal your will."
The Maggid, perplexed, returned to Medzibozh, where his mentor explained what had taken place.
"In their first incarnation on this earth," said the Baal Shem Tov, "one man took another to court, demanding a certain sum of money. Though the man's claim was well-founded, the judge negligently dismissed the case.
"In their return to this earth, the man who actually owed the money lost his wallet, which contained just the sum under dispute. The man who ought to have collected that sum in court found the wallet. The pauper had been, in his first incarnation, the judge, so he was roundly beaten because he'd caused the debtor to sin by keeping money not rightfully his. Thus, each got what he deserved! That, then," he concluded, "is the meaning of the Zohar - 'the secret of reincarnation.'"
"Why are you followers called chassidim?" the Maggid once asked the Baal Shem Tov. "Our Sages say Chassidus is greater than sanctity, humility, fear of sin, Divine inspiration, and even resurrection of the dead."
"We learn that one who burns his cut fingernails is called a 'Chassid,'" replied the Baal Shem. "Though it is very difficult to burn fingernails, the chassid does so to prevent others from being harmed. He sacrifices himself for others, going beyond the letter of the law, and completely nullifies himself. This, then, is Chassidus: going beyond the letter of the law in mitzvos between man and HaShem, and between man and his fellow man."
"One erev Yom Kippur, at the Baal Shem's table, I saw him as a flame of fire: His hands were fiery and so was his food. The Baal Shem later revealed to me that at that moment he had learned the insights gained by Moshe Rabbenu when he ascended Mount Sinai and remained there for forty days and nights without food." Indeed, the Maggid asserted, "I am greater than all Baal Shem Tov's disciples. For only I have seem him elevate every item of food and drink he puts into his mouth."
Another erev Yom Kippur, the Baal Shem's tallis slipped out of his gartel. The Maggid approached and carefully tucked it back into place. Suddenly, he was overcome with fear of HaShem. He was so overwhelmed that he almost fell, and when he grabbed a table for support, he declared, "Master of the Universe, I didn't know my Rebbe had such awe of You!"
R. Moshe of Kubrin related that many years after the Baal Shem's passing, the Maggid found a handkerchief among his personal effects. When he noticed some snuff left on it by the Baal Shem, he was seized with such fear that he fainted, and it took great effort to revive him.
R. Moshe of Kubrin also told of two relatives of the Baal Shem who asked him to settle a dispute. Believing himself to be an interested party, he sent them to the Maggid. As R. Dov Ber sat down before them, he suddenly heard the Baal Shem's footsteps in an adjoining room. Fearful that this eavesdropping might jeopardize his impartiality, he rose and declared, "By the power of the Torah and the court, whoever need not be here should leave." The Baal Shem obeyed the decree and left.
"Despite the Maggid's great fear of his Rebbe," concluded R. Moshe "his fear of God was even greater!"
In return for a favor, R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi once asked the Maggid to reveal the Baal Shem Tov's essence. After careful thought, he commented, "Had he lived in the times of the Tannaim, he would have been a wonder; in the era of the Prophets, an innovation; and, in the period of the Patriarchs, noteworthy."
Had R. Shneur Zalman not heard it from his Rebbe the Maggid, he wouldn't have believed the Baal Shem Tov mortal.
When the Maggid arrived in Medzibozh, he presented the following kvittel (petition) to the Baal Shem Tov:
Dov Ber ben Chavah: For a salvation of body and soul, a complete recovery for his sick legs, the purification of his soul, spirit, and body by the light of the holy Torah, and true emunas chachomim [faith in the Sages] for him and his household, among all Israel. Pidyon nefesh [the redemption of a soul]: two rubles.
The Baal Shem responded with this kvittel on erev Rosh HaShanah, 1756:
Yisrael ben Sarah: For health and a good, long life. He should merit to form a bond with all souls, connecting them to their roots; and all his enemies should repent and become his friends. May HaShem will it, and may you be inscribed and sealed for good. Pidyon nefesh: one ruble per week.
It was an extraordinary gesture: receiving a kvittel from the founder of Chassidus himself! No doubt, the Maggid of Mezritch was the only person ever so honored.
When the Maggid left his Rebbe to head home, the Baal Shem placed his hands on his protege's head and blessed him. Then the Baal Shem lowered his own head and asked for the Maggid's blessing. The Maggid tried to pull away, but the Baal Shem grasped his hands and placed them on his head. The Maggid had no choice but to bless him as well.