The well-known Torah scholar Rabbi Dovid of Mikolayev once encountered an old friend from his youth, who demanded to know why he had decided to become a follower of the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Dovid related the following:
I heard of the Baal Shem Tov, and was interested to investigate what he had to offer. I went to visit him, but I did not find what I was looking for. The chassidim there influenced me to stay a little longer. They told me that if I would remain until Shabbos, and make the effort on Friday afternoon to be in his presence when he recited Song of Songs, I would find what I sought. I changed my travel plans, and the chassidim helped me to arrange what they had suggested. Well! I certainly heard something that was sublime and a delight to the ears. I even sensed that his words set up a clamor in all the supernal worlds! But still, he did not capture me.
The chassidim then urged me to wait until the eve of the day on which the rebbe observed yahrzeit after one of his parents. That is when he would pace around his room all night long, and recite the entire Mishnah by heart. This would undoubtedly captivate me. I stayed on, and that night hid in his room. What I saw was truly extraordinary. But still, I felt this wasn’t it.
Then the chassidim insisted that I should wait until the following night, when, after a full-day fast, he would invite his elder disciples for a mystic meal. At that meal, they assured me, it was impossible that he should not draw out my soul. They also forewarned me earnestly that I must make sure not to fall asleep there, because, for some reason, slumber often overcame those who participated. I napped during the day, and utilized other methods in order to ensure that I would not fall asleep at the table.
I was assigned a place at the gathering. The Baal Shem Tov sat at the head of the table. Surrounded by his chassidim, he began to expound upon the Kabbalistic meditations that accompany the ritual immersion in the mikvah.
“But Rebbe,” one of his chassidim called out to him, “does not the holy Ari of Safed, of sainted memory, explain these meditations otherwise?”
The Baal Shem Tov threw his head back. His face, which had been like a fiery flame, suddenly grew pale. His eyes bulged. He looked like one not in this world. At that moment I was overcome by a deep slumber, despite all my efforts to ward it off.
In my sleep, I saw myself in an unknown city. People were hurrying in one direction. I asked them where they hastened so urgently, and they told me that the Baal Shem Tov was soon to deliver a discourse, and they were eager to hear it. I ran with them, until we came to an imposing edifice, inside which stood two chairs.
“For whom?” I asked.
“For the Baal Shem Tov and the Ari,” I was told.
I managed to stand near the chair of the Baal Shem Tov, who soon began to expound the Kabbalistic meditations of the mikvah. When he had completed his discourse, the Ari challenged him with a series of questions, each of which the Baal Shem Tov answered. Finally, it was clear that the Ari accepted the Baal Shem Tov’s position as correct for the times that he lived in.
At that point I awoke, and saw that I still sat at the table with the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples. The color was returning to his face, and it was becoming fiery once more. Again he began to deliver the discourse on the meditations of the mikvah, and again the same disciple asked him: “Rebbe! Does not the Ari explain otherwise?”
The Baal Shem Tov turned to me and said, “Dovid! Stand up and testify to what you have seen!”
At that moment, the Baal Shem Tov captured my soul.
The friend who heard this report, Reb Meir, went to the Baal Shem Tov, and in due course became one of his outstanding disciples. His great-grandson, Rabbi Hillel of Paritch, was such an outstanding chassid of the first three Lubavitcher Rebbes that the third of them, the Tzemach Tzedek, testified of him, “Reb Hillel is himself half a rebbe.”
Abridged and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from A Treasury of Chassidic Tales (Artscroll).
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov [“Master of the Good Name”], 1698–1760. (Also referred to as “the BeShT,” an acronym of his title.) A unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, he revealed the chassidic movement, and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734). He passed away on the festival of Shavuot in 1760. He wrote no books, although many contain his teachings.
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