6 Tishrei 5781 / Thursday, September 24, 2020 | Torah Reading: Ha'azinu
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A Visit to The Baal Shem Tov    

A Visit to The Baal Shem Tov

The quiet tzaddik simply stood in the corner, pouring his heart out. I had been frozen, with no spiritual arousal at all, until I prayed in the same room with him...


This year, I signed up for a trip to the Ukraine that was going to give me less than half a day in Uman, and more than two days in Medzibozh, the home town and burial place of the Baal Shem Tov.
As a Rebbe Nachman fan, I was initially a bit non-plussed about the scheduling: I was coming for Rebbe Nachman, after all, not his great-grandfather. Which shows how much I know...
As I’ve written about elsewhere, my time in Uman wasn’t terribly productive, at least at the time (now, I’m already starting to realize why it was very helpful, but that’s a story for another occasion.)
After Uman, we drove to Breslov, where Rav Natan, Rebbe Nachman’s main pupil and the one who actually wrote down and codified the Rebbe’s teachings, is buried. We got there at dusk, and the sun was starting to set. The tomb itself is set on a high hill above the River Bug, and the view and location was absolutely gorgeous on a late August evening.
But as I trudged up to the tomb, I still wasn’t feeling very inspired. The lack of ‘connection’ at Uman had planted the seed that maybe, this trip was going to be a bit of a wash-out, spiritually, and that if it that was G-d’s plan, there wasn’t much I could do about it.
I could hear someone sobbing uncontrollably when I got near the tomb, and I thought it must be one of the 20-something post-high school girls in my group. Boy, was I wrong. It was one of the rabbis who was leading us – and he was crying so hard he hadn’t even managed to make it into the men’s section. He’d collapsed on top of Rav Natan’s tomb and was weeping his heart out.
It was infectious. A few others started to cry; then a few others. But I couldn’t feel anything. I asked G-d to help me fix my ‘heart of stone’, and I started to think that there must be something wrong with me.
I hadn’t danced (or cried…) by Rebbe Nachman; I hadn’t cried (or danced…) here. It was like I was watching a movie, as opposed to participating in something real. I sighed a deep sigh, and then I caught sight of an electrifying figure who was intoning prayers or words of Torah in the men’s section.
He was dressed in black, and had a white beard that was easily a metre long. I couldn’t see his face, as he was sitting down and using a shtender (lecturn). But his voice was spell-binding, and I secretly wondered to myself if he was a spark of Rav Natan, sent back to encourage more people to find their ‘heart of flesh’.
We all left, and went on to Medzibozh, where we spent the night. I’d been there before the previous year, and I was exhausted, so I ate and went to sleep. I figured if I was going to have another ‘disconnected’ experience, there was no rush, and I’d go visit the BESHT the next day.
The next morning, I went to the tomb and I did my hitbodedut (personal prayer) for an hour and a half; prayed for a few people, gave some charity and dropped off some kvittlach (prayer requests). It was nice, but nothing special.
As we were waiting to go to the rebuilt Bet Midrash of the Baal Shem Tov, also in Medzibuzh, my friend noticed someone ‘holy’ in a car by the tomb, and asked the driver who he was.
“He’s quiet. You won’t know him.” My friend pressed for more details. “He’s a Rabbi at Shuvu Banim, Rav Berland’s yeshiva. But he’s not famous, or anything.” Rav Berland is the rav of Rav Shalom Arush, so we were suitably impressed that he really was someone holy.
My friend wanted to ask the Rav something, and he came out of the car and spoke to her in such a simple, friendly, caring way. I had a real shock – because I suddenly realized that he was the man from Rav Natan’s tomb the night before. I really wanted to ask him: ‘how do I really start to be happy?’ – which I’d decided was the main point of my trip, this time round. But I’m British, and found it far too hard to open my mouth. He was gone before I’d worked up the courage.
In the meantime, my group went off to the rebuilt Bet Midrash of the Baal Shem Tov, which was a really amazing place. What was even more amazing, was that one of my group, a well-known faith-healer from my village, got up and told us all how while she’d been praying at the tomb of the BESHT, the Baal Shem Tov had appeared to her, and told her: “People of Israel, G-d loves you. Be happy, you are protected. It’s the time of Moshiach.”
(I found out later that the leader of the group – a serious and seriously ‘connected’ Rav – had asked the lady to pick out a picture of the Baal Shem Tov, and that she’d picked the one that at least one other holy rabbi in Israel had identified as being the closest ‘fit’ to how the Baal Shem Tov actually looked…)
I got quite emotional after I heard her talk. Here was the Baal Shem Tov, telling us all to be happy, and here was me, failing miserably to be happy even though I’d been trying so hard to get there for the last few weeks, and particularly, the last couple of days.
There and then, I decided I was going to try and do six hours in Medzibozh. I’d start at the old Bet Midrash, and then take it from there. The rest of my group went off to Mezritch and Ostropoli, so I pretty much had the whole of Jewish Medzibozh to myself.
I sat at a wooden table in the Bet Midrash, and pondered on how many people – amazing people, amazingly holy people – had sat in exactly the same spot before me, trying to get close to G-d.
I fell asleep for half an hour (which I usually never do when I’m praying) and woke up very disorientated and out of it. Great! Even this attempt at praying was going down the toilet…
I decided to go back to the tomb, where I sat by myself for another couple of hours, praying, but feeling like I was getting no-where fast. Until the mysterious rabbi from Shuvu Banim walked in, and took a chair at the far corner.
All of a sudden, the wall cracked, and I started crying my eyes out, and asking G-d to fix me – and to fix all of us. It was the first time in my life that I really prayed with a genuine broken heart, as opposed to praying because of self-pity, sadness or depression, and the words came out in a torrent.
The man disappeared, then reappeared a few minutes later with a cup of tea, that he’d brought for me to drink. He gave it to me, and I had the weirdest impression of getting a whole Torah lesson kind of ‘implanted’ in my soul. The main thing was kindness. Prayer is also good, prayer is also necessary, but the main thing is simple kindnesses for other people, and as many of them as possible.
Half an hour later, I was ready to leave. I’d drunk the tea, and I was feeling what can only be described as ‘happy’. Not high, not excited, just quietly happy. Happy in my bones. The kind of happy I’d been praying about for months.
I passed the man on the way out, and he nodded his head, smiled, and asked me how I’d liked the tea. I told him it was good. Good for the body, but even better for the soul. Again, I had the weirdest impression that he knew exactly what I was talking about, exactly what I’d been praying about, and exactly what had been going on with me – which is a whole lot more than I could say for myself.
I think that rav, that quiet, modest, kind, humble rav that no-one knows or has heard about, is one of the 36 ‘hidden’ tzadikim in whose merit the world continues to exist. I have no idea what he was doing in the Ukraine a bare month before Rosh Hashanah, but I think he was on a mission.
Maybe he was a spark of Rav Natan after all, trying to bring more and more people closer to having a ‘heart of flesh’, and closer to being kind human beings before the Moshiach comes.
I’ll never know.
What I do know is that far from being a wash-out, my trip to the Ukraine ended up being everything I hoped for, and more. It wasn’t what I thought it would or should be, but it was clearly exactly what I needed. And I pray that all the holiness and all the goodness that I was shown in Medzibozh will make it back with me, and stick with me, back in Eretz Yisrael.

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  3 Talkbacks for this article    See all talkbacks  
  question about rivka levy's articles
nava9/8/2013 10:21:48 PM
  Your ability to share is remarkable
Anonymous,5/24/2013 7:15:50 AM
  So inspirational
Gila10/9/2011 11:51:43 AM

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