A Hidden Light
Stories and Teachings of Early HaBaD and Bratzlav Hasidism
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
Winner Best Book on Philosophy 2012
New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards
The Making of a Rebbe:
The Apprenticeship of the Liozhna Prodigy
In my Rebbe’s wonderful collection of pre-Hasidic stories (Sefer ha-Zikhronot), he reveals the mysterious world of the ‘hidden righteous ones’ who helped to lay the foundations of Hasidism. These were seemingly ordinary people—beggars, blacksmiths, and beadles—whose foremost concern was to serve their neighbors and fellow Jews, helping them both materially and spiritually as best they could. Some of those whose stories the Rebbe told were simply pious individuals who shied away from any acclaim or attention, while others were deeply learned mystics, seeking a life of divine service outside of the official seminaries and synagogues. The latter intentionally hid their great abilities in order to bring hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise fall into despair and distance from Judaism. In this way, they fulfilled the words of the prophet Micah, “Do justice, love goodness, and hide your walk with God.” (6:8)
Among them was Yisra’el ben Eliezer, an orphan who had been raised by the hidden righteous ones, the tzaddikim nistarim. As a young man, he had travelled from town to town like his mentors—finding work as a teacher of children, a kosher slaughterer, and even as a household servant—bringing help and a little inspiration to everyone he met. During his various travels, he learned first-hand about the miseries faced by the ordinary Jews of the shtetl and determined to do whatever he could to make a positive difference in their lives.
In time, he settled down and married and began to receive teachings from the ascended master, Ahiyah ha-Shiloni. Nevertheless, he continued in the ways of the hidden tzaddikim, disguising himself as an ordinary innkeeper, even as his father had done before him. Then, shortly before his thirty-sixth birthday, it was revealed to him from ‘on high’ that the time had finally come for him to make himself known to the world. Hearing this, he was troubled and reluctant to give up his anonymity, not wanting to cease his holy work in secret. But the tradition tells us that he soon received a message that changed his mind. The message was from the leader of the hidden tzaddikim, the holy Adam Ba’al Shem, and it spoke of Yisra’el’s previous incarnation as a hidden tzaddik, and told him why he must reveal himself now:
“Being that the world was not worthy to sense the fragrance of the spirit of his Torah, this holy soul shall once again descend into the material world, and Heaven shall move this soul to reveal herself. A renewing way shall be revealed through this soul until the world will be filled with knowledge, bringing the nearness of completion.”
Now, in the name of our holy teacher and master, I must reveal that you, my holy brother, are this same blessed soul who has come to this world again to scent it with the fragrance of purity and to purify it with the spirit of holiness. Thus, very soon, you must reveal yourself and illuminate the hearts of everyone with a renewing light. May the name of Heaven be sanctified through your hand, and the redemption brought near in our day.
With such testimony before him, he finally surrendered to his destiny, and shortly afterward, with the passing of Adam Ba’al Shem, was named the new leader of the tzaddikim nistarim. He would now be known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, the ‘master of the good Name.’
At first, it might seem that there is a contradiction in his being ‘revealed’ and yet becoming the leader of a secret society; but this had actually been the tradition for several generations, as we have already described in A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters. For under the title of ‘Ba’al Shem,’ the leaders of the hidden tzaddikim were indeed ‘known,’ but only as especially potent folk-healers, shamanic adepts, and kabbalists who who were sometimes known to guide a mysterious circle of disciples. Their true identity was safely concealed under this popular cover. So it was that the Ba’al Shem Tov began to be ‘known’ as a great healer and popular teacher throughout the towns and villages of the Ukraine, while at the same time administering the secret activities and spiritual development of the hidden tzaddikim.
Unlike the other ba’alei shem, it was the special destiny of the Ba’al Shem Tov to transform the landscape of Judaism in Eastern Europe in ways his predecessors could hardly have imagined. In the past, Eliyahu Ba’al Shem had sought to cultivate kabbalist-saints, Yoel Ba’al Shem to teach shamanic methods, and Adam Ba’al Shem to improve the lot of the degraded Jewish populace, but the Ba’al Shem Tov now sought nothing less than a “sea-change” in the life of Jews everywhere, fusing all of these intentions into one. Using the network of the hidden tzaddikim, he began a subversive revolution, undermining and seeking to replace the morally deficient Jewish leadership of Eastern Europe under whom the common people suffered.
For not only were ordinary Jews emotionally and spiritually desolate after the Chmielnicki Massacres and the great Messianic disappointment of Shabbatai Tzvi, but they were also economically depressed and feeling abandoned by their leaders, most of whom had retreated to an ivory tower of learning, often associated with the learned rabbis and great seminaries of Lithuania. The Ba’al Shem Tov was disturbed by the pervasive lack of compassion shown for the common people, and horrified to see how many rabbis tended to ‘lord it over’ and ‘look down upon’ the simple and pious Jews of their communities, keeping them in a vice-grip of despair.
Thus, he determined to cultivate a new learned elite who would serve this population both humbly and simply, giving them strength, rather than draining them of self-esteem. This would require a new kind of Jewish leader; one who was not driven by a desire for power or influence, or even for learning or personal enlightenment alone; but one whose desire was to grow in relationship to God through serving others, using their abilities and authority to uplift hearts and to anchor Jewish practice among ordinary Jews. This new kind of leader, connecting both head and heart—who would displace the learned tyrants of the time—would be called a Rebbe. And the Rebbe to whom fell the “task of capturing the strongest ‘fortress’ of the opposition—Lithuania,” was Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Alter Rebbe, founder of the great lineage of ?aBaD Hasidism.
The Secret Service of Barukh of Liozhna
To prepare the ground for this quiet revolution, the Ba’al Shem Tov now sent the hidden tzaddikim out to towns and villages across the Ukraine and Russia as recruiters of talent and surveyors of the spiritual landscape. Among the most loyal of his spies and scouts during this period was Reb Barukh Weiskvaliker of Liozhna, whose father had been a teacher of Talmud in Vitebsk and a direct descendant of the great rabbi and kabbalist, Yehudah Loew of Prague. His learned mother, Rahel, on the other hand, was the daughter of Barukh Portugaler, called “the Batlan,” a secret disciple of Reb Yoel, the Ba’al Shem of Zamoshtch.
Though a gifted student of Torah and Talmud like his father, young Barukh also took after his maternal grandfather and namesake, showing a marked inclination for solitude. Often, these characteristics came together as Barukh carried his books out of the stuffy beit midrash (house of study) and into the woods where he would lie on his back and study in joyful serenity for hours at a time. But sadly, the Eden of his childhood was not to last; for, at only fourteen years old, he lost both of his parents to illness. In the painful desolation that followed their deaths, he became more and more withdrawn, and his natural desire for solitude grew into a strong need to get away from Vitebsk, to get lost in his studies somewhere where no one knew him. Thus, he began to travel from town to town, supporting himself by the work of his own hands, and using his savings to study undisturbed for long stretches.
This itinerant lifestyle of traveling, working, and studying, went on for several years and brought Barukh into contact with many holy souls, some of whom seemed to be more than their outward appearance or circumstances might suggest. Once, while visiting his friend, the holy blacksmith of Dobromyzl, he encountered a young disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Reb Yitzhak Shaul who, despite his various rabbinic honors, had also chosen the life of a simple blacksmith. In Reb Yitzhak Shaul, young Barukh saw a living example of the type of Jew that the Ba’al Shem Tov was hoping to evolve: one who loved both Torah and his fellow human beings equally. Seeing this, he began to long for something more than just learning in solitude and the perfection of his own character—a life of deep and holy service to God.
Through Reb Yitzhak Shaul, Barukh learned of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s main doctrines and teachings: of specific personal providence for every aspect of creation; how God is constantly creating the Universe, keeping the world in existence in every moment; how we must adhere and cling to God in every moment, investing intention and consciousness in all our actions, especially during prayer; the importance of continual repentance and serving God with joy at all times; and finally, the equality of the scholar and the common people.
Barukh was overwhelmed by these profound teachings, and soon determined to meet the Ba’al Shem Tov for himself. And so it was that he became one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s secret missionaries in the service of God.
And the lives and stories continue...