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.
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.