Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Chassidic movement. Presented here is the famous letter the Baal Shem Tov wrote to his brother-in-law in the Holy Land, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov, in which he describes his encounter with the soul of the Mashiach, the latter giving him instructions as how to hasten his coming.
This letter was first published in 1781 as an appendix to Ben Porat Yosef [p.128a] by Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, one of the Baal Shem Tov's chief disciples. Since then it has been republished many times in various books. This letter never reached its originally intended destination. I performed…an elevation of soul…and saw wondrous things I had never seen before…
Certain disciples of the Baal Shem Tov made it a practice to study this letter very deeply - some even read it daily - because they realized that it contains the basic elements of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings, which in turn will lead to the revelation of the Mashaich.
This translation is based on the one in R. Aryeh Kaplan's Chassidic Masters, p. 12. The commentary and notes are based mostly on R. Yitzchak Ginsburgh's book Sod HaShem Lireiav, pp. 362-3 (Jerusalem, 1985). Adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky.
On Rosh Hashanah of the year 5507 I performed, by means of oath, an elevation of soul [to the higher spiritual realms], as known to you, and saw wondrous things I had never seen before. That which I saw and learned there is impossible to convey in words, even face to face. I saw innumerable souls, both living and dead…fleeting back and forth, going from one universe to another…
When I returned to the lower Garden of Eden [one of the levels of the abode of departed souls], I saw innumerable souls, both living and dead, some whom I knew and others whom I did not. They were fleeting back and forth, going from one universe to another through the Column that is known to those who delve in mysteries. Their state of joy was so great that lips cannot express it, and the physical ear is too gross to hear it.
There were also many wicked people who had repented; their sins were forgiven, since this was a special time of grace. Even to my eyes it was wondrous how many were accepted as penitents, many of whom you know. There was great joy among them too, and they also ascended in the above mentioned manner.
All of them beseeched and petitioned me unceasingly: "Because of the glory of your Torah, G‑d granted you greater understanding to perceive and know these things. Ascend with us, so that you can be our help and support." I ascended from level to level until I entered the chamber of the Mashiach…
Because of the great joy that I saw among them, I decided to ascend with them. Due to the great danger involved in ascending to the supernal universes, I asked my master [Achiya the Shilonite] to come with me, as I had never before ascended to such a high level. I ascended from level to level until I entered the chamber of the Mashiach, where the Mashiach learns Torah with all the sages and tzadikim and also with the Seven Shepherds
I saw great joy there, but I did not know the reason for it. At first I thought that the reason for this joy was because I had passed away from the physical world, heaven forbid. Later, they told me that my time had not yet come to die, since they have great pleasure on high when I bring about Unifications through the holy Torah down below. To this very day, I do not know the reason for that joy.
The question which follows had already been posed to the Mashiach in Talmudic times by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. (Sanhedrin 98a) Then, the answer was: "Today" (Psalms 95:7) which was interpreted by the prophet Elijah as meaning: "Today - if you would only listen to G‑d's voice." According to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch (Likutei Dibburim, Simchat Torah 5690, #30 [p. 618ff]), the Baal Shem Tov was in effect saying to the Mashiach: "We have already listened to His voice, even to the extent of giving up our lives in order to do so. Why, then, have you not come?"
I asked the Mashiach: "When will the Master come?", and he answered: "By this you shall know:
In the time when your teaching will become public and revealed in the world, and your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes, that which I have taught you and you have comprehended, and they also shall be able to perform unifications and elevations as you, and then all of the kelipot will cease to exist, and there shall be a time of good will and salvation."
The Mashiach sets five conditions for his coming; each of these is a step in a cumulative process:
1. "Your teachings will become public and revealed in the world": As is known, for most mystics and spiritual-focused people becoming a public figure is a very painful experience. Nonetheless, it is a challenge that must be faced if one's insights and teachings are to affect the world.
2. "Your wellsprings will burst forth to the farthest extremes" (Proverbs 5:16): His whole self, his "wellspring," must be revealed. If Mashiach is to come, everyone must be able to experience something of what it is like to be the Baal Shem Tov.
3. "That which I have taught you and what you have comprehended [yourself]": Expressible ideas and even those ideas that are inherently inexpressible must be revealed.
4. "They also shall be able to perform unifications and elevations as you": The Baal Shem Tov's power of unification must become public domain. In its simplest sense, this means that everyone must subscribe to the Baal Shem Tov's doctrine of the equality-of-soul of all Jewish people, the basis of his infinite love of all Jews (see Tanya ch. 32).
5. "All the kelipot will cease to exist and there shall be a time of good will and salvation": Evil can be eradicated and the transcendent light of G‑d can shine. The eradication of evil on this level can be understood as seeing it as ultimately good. This, however, cannot be successfully accomplished without first attaining the previous four levels. All the worlds unify as one and ascend to produce an infinitely great joy and pleasure…
I stood in wonder and great distress as to the length of time necessary for this, when can this be?! But from that which I learned there - three potent practices and three Holy Names, easy to learn and explain - my mind settled, and I thought that possibly by means of these, men of my nature will be able to achieve levels similar to mine. They would then be able to ascend, learn and perceive, just like myself. But I was not given permission all the days of my life to reveal this.
Nonetheless, according to Rabbi Mordechai of Neshchiz (1748-1800), the Baal Shem Tov alluded to these practices in the continuation of his letter (Imrei Kodesh 40; Sefer Baal Shem Tov p. 122, end of note 13).
For your sake, I made a request that I might be allowed to teach this to you, but permission was denied. I am still bound by this oath, but this may I inform you and may G‑d help you, your way shall ever be in the presence of G‑d and never leave your consciousness in the time of your prayer and study. And every word of your lips intend to unite [i.e. be aware of and meditate upon each word]: for in every letter there are Worlds and Souls and Divinity, and they ascend and connect and unify with each other, and afterward the letters connect and unify to become a word, and [then] unify in true unification in Divinity.
In every letter there are Worlds: These are the "three potent practices" alluded to earlier in the letter, and are among the basic teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. For a detailed description of this technique, see The Hebrew Letters by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh.
Here, only two verbs are used: "connect and unify." In the following phrase, "And [then] unify in true unification in Divinity," only one verb, "unify," appears. From this we learn that, in particular, there are three stages of meditation: meditation of the secrets of individual letters; meditation on the dynamic process of letters combining to form meaningful words; and, in the terminology of Tanya (II, ch.12 [89b]), meditation on the "light above all" which spontaneously appears around the total structure of a finished word.
Include your soul with them in each and every state. All the worlds unify as one and ascend to produce an infinitely great joy and pleasure, as you can understand from the joy of groom and bride in miniature and physicality: in the physical microcosm, how much more so in such an exalted level as this. Surely G‑d will be your aid and wherever you turn you will succeed and reach greater awareness. "Give to the wise and he will become ever wiser." (Proverbs 9:9)