Chapter 3
Successor to the Baal Shem Tov

A Son, Not a Successor

Before his passing, the Baal Shem Tov told his son Tzvi, "Had I instilled within you the soul of Adam HaRishon (the first man), you would know all of Creation. Instead, I granted you a holy soul, so you don't need all that."

It seems that the Baal Shem Tov was warning his son that leadership of the movement would not be his. Adam HaRishon symbolizes leadership, as it says, "Let us make man...and he will dominate the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals, and the entire earth..." (Bereishis 1:26). The Baal Shem Tov did not wish to lower Adam HaRishon's soul by instilling it within his own son, merely to enable him to inherit leadership. "You don't need all that." Tzvi's soul, a holy one, would perfect itself, not others.


Who Shall Carry On?

There are varying accounts as to who the Baal Shem indicated would succeed him. According to one account, shortly before the Baal Shem Tov's death, one of his students cried out, "Master, how can you leave us?" The Baal Shem replied, "The bear is in the forest and Pinchas is a sage." The "bear" referred to R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, and "Pinchas" alluded to R. Pinchas of Koretz.

On the other hand, Chabad tradition maintains that when the Baal Shem was asked, "To whom are you leaving us?" he replied, "To my only son," He then turned to his son and said, "Hersheleh, although you are afraid to fill my position, I promise that whenever you need me and call for me, I will come to you."

Indeed this tradition holds that for a year R. Tzvi did succeed his father. Although a pious and holy man, R. Tzvi did not possess the rare qualities of leadership demanded by the critical times. After his father's death he led the movement until a successor to the Baal Shem could be chosen.

A New Leader is Chosen

According to Chabad tradition, at the end of the year of R. Tzvi's leadership, R. Tzvi and the Baal Shem's chevraya (disciples) were seated around a table. It was Shavuos and the first Yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov. "My holy father appeared to me last night in a dream," R. Tzvi told the group. "He informed me that the Heavenly host and its attendants, who had accompanied him until now, have joined R. Dov Ber. He therefore instructed me to transfer the leadership in the presence of the entire holy chevraya." R. Tzvi then removed his white mantle, placed it over the Maggid, and brought him to the head of the table, wishing him a fervent Mazel Tov!

R. Yaakov Yosef

For many reasons, R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye would have been the logical choice to succeed the Baal Shem. Scion of a great rabbinic family whose ancestors included R. Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, the Tosafos Yom Tov, R. Yaakov Yosef was an ardent opponent of the Chassidic movement - until he met the Baal Shem Tov. Tradition has it that the Baal Shem had to come to speak in the Ukrainian town of Sharograd, where R. Yaakov Yosef was rabbi. Mesmerized by his words, the people actually forgot to go to Shul for davening. Outraged, R. Yaakov Yosef came to confront the upstart , heard what he had to say - and remained to learn from him, as his senior disciple and closest Talmid (disciple).

It was R. Yaakov Yosef who gave the movement a voice through his major works on Chassidic thought. As the talmid closest to the Baal Shem, it would have seemed proper for the mantle of leadership to be handed to him, yet it was not so. It is presumed that his fiery nature made him unfit for such a position. Excitable and prone to passionate outbursts, R. Yaakov Yosef was not the man to bring harmony, unity, and a spirit of understanding both to chassidim and to those who watched the movement with suspicion. What was needed was a charismatic leader possessing a talent for organization and a genius for inspiring devotion and loyalty in others.

This ability to govern was evident in the Maggid. A true descendant of the House of David, he possessed that indescribable trait of authority that marks a leader.

One tradition records that on his deathbed, the Baal Shem chose the Maggid as his successor. Sensing R. Yaakov Yosef's disappointment and dejection, the Baal Shem turned to him and said cheerfully, I know this 'bear' has no feet, but he has broad hands with which to attract hearts, and he is well-qualified to unite all those faithful to Chassidus under his leadership."

R. Pinchas of Koretz was displeased with the choice of the Maggid. He, too, felt that R. Yaakov Yosef should have become the new leader. Finally, though, he accepted the leadership of the Maggid, explaining it to R. Yaakov Yosef: "Why is the crown of a king now hung on a peg? Since the crown is so great, should it not be placed on the head of an important minister? The answer is that such a person may become haughty and think himself a supreme ruler. Therefore it has been placed on a simple peg, which has no pride. R. Dov Ber has neither pride nor ambition. He sees himself as the lowest of the low; thus, the crown' may rest safely upon his head."

R. Yaakov Yosef remained in Polnoye without much contact with the masses and disseminated Chassidus by means of his books. For a long time he remained aloof from the Maggid, but, after hearing glowing reports about him, he decided to visit Mezritch. When he arrived, the Maggid's attendant, not knowing who he was, would not let him in.

""Are you such a nobleman that you need a guard at your doorway?" R. Yaakov Yosef complained to the Maggid after he finally gained entry.

"Heaven forbid!" replied the Maggid. "I need an attendant because I'm lame, that's all."

For the next two hours, R. Yaakov Yosef wordlessly observed the Maggid. Upon leaving, he exclaimed, "His entire Avodah is for the sake of Heaven!"

Recognizing the greatness of the Maggid, he added, "The day the Baal Shem Tov departed, the Shechinah moved its haversack and rod from Medzibozh to Mezritch and we must bow our heads." R. Yisrael of Rizhin later explained, "The 'haversack' of the Shechinah is the remnant of Yiras Shomayim left in the world."

R. Pinchas of Koretz

Although many sources maintain that the Baal Shem's disciple, R. Pinchas of Koretz, never embraced the Maggid as the Baal Shem's successor, these two luminaries profoundly respected each other. When the members of the Maggid's household became sick. R. Pinchas was summoned to pray for them until they recovered.

One Rosh HaShanah, the Maggid stood by the window of his home gazing outside. When R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk finally asked why he didn't proceed with Kiddush, he replied, "What can I do while the prayers of R. Pinchas of Koretz are still piercing the Heavens?"

When Poland selected its king, R. Pinchas asked the Maggid which contender was the best candidate. The Maggid found fault with everyone but Count Poniatowski. A few days later the Count was crowned king.

R. Pinchas once asked why the Maggid had so many more students than he did. "I'll tell you why," replied the Maggid. "The Torah portions of Chukas and Balak and Mattos and Maasei are sometimes read separately, sometimes together, depending on the year. But Pinchas, which comes between Balak and Mattos, is always read separately - for Pinchas is a great zealot for truth and it's difficult to join him."

Gaining New Disciples

R. Yechiel Michel of Zlatachov accepted the leadership of the Maggid once he was shown that the wellsprings of wisdom that had flowed to the Baal Shem Tov were flowing to the Maggid. Although he had his own chassidim and Beis Medrash in Zlatachov and later in Yampole, R. Yechiel Michel visited the Maggid several times, accompanied by his chassidim.

While these "senior colleagues" of the Maggid had their own chassidimand did not become R. Dov Ber's disciples, many of the Baal Shem Tov's younger students did. Among them was R. Nachum of Chernobyl, who was once discovered delivering a sermon incorporating his own words of Torah with those of his teachers. When confronted by the Maggid, R. Nachum replied, "I teach publicly only what I have heard from the Baal Shem Tov and you. But to make it more understandable for the listeners, I add my own explanation."

With that the Maggid unbuttoned R. Nachum's kapota, placed his mouth near his disciple's heart, and said, "Go with strength, my son; go out and deliver your discourses."

Who Shall Carry On? Other Versions

There are two other accounts of how the Maggid came to succeed the Baal Shem To. According to one, before his passing, he was asked who would succeed him. "He who will tell you how to conquer pride should become your leader," was his response.

After the Baal Shem Tov's death, the first candidate to be tested was R. Dov Ber. He declared, "Pride belongs to the Creator, blessed be He, as it says, "The Lord reigns; He is clothed with pride' (Tehillim 93:1). There is no way to uproot this vice, but we must fight it throughout our lifetime, until our last moments on Earth." The chevraya realized that he was the one to succeed the Baal Shem, and crowned him their new leader.

By another account, the Baal Shem's followers agreed that whoever could reveal something exclusive about the master would be deemed the leader appointed from Heaven. Each disciple told a story or a word of Torah from the Baal Shem Tov, but nothing new emerged. Then the Maggid related that he had witnessed the Baal Shem Tov leave his body and enter a "Shabbos body" every erev Shabbos. Since no one else had known of this wonder, the Maggid became the successor to the Baal Shem.