19 Adar 5781 / Wednesday, March 03, 2021 | Torah Reading: Ki Tisa
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HomeTorah PortionStories from the Baal Shem TovBo: The First Revelation
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Bo: The First Revelation    

Bo: The First Revelation

The Rabbi took the Baal Shem Tov aside and asked him, “Who are you? Please tell me the truth.” The Baal Shem Tov disclosed to the Rav that in fact he was a holy man...


Parshat Bo
"[These words] must also be a sign on your arm and a reminder in the center of your head." (Shemot 13:9)
"[These words] shall [also] be a sign on your arm and an insignia in the center of your head." (Shemot 13:16)
“These words” indicates that this chapter of the Torah must be included in the Tefillin (phylacteries), which are worn as a sign on one’s arm and head.
[The center of your head is written literally as “between your eyes.” This is an idiom that means between your eyes and just above the hairline. Insignia means frontlets or, in Hebrew, totafot.]
* * *
During the days of the Baal Shem Tov, it was common for travelers to stay at small, roadside inns. Many of these small inns were leased by Jewish in-keepers from the non-Jewish landowners.
Prior to the revelation of the Baal Shem Tov as a spiritual giant, he would disguise himself as an ignorant, albeit pious, peasant and was known simply as Reb Israel.
Rabbi Gershon Kitover, his brother-in-law, wanted to help his sister, Chana, the Baal Shem Tov’s wife, with their material needs, so he attempted to find local employment for Reb Israel. The Baal Shem Tov proved unsuitable for any work which was an embarrassment to Rabbi Gershon who was well-known as a famous Talmud Chocham and Rav (expert in Jewish law) in his city Kitov.
In desperation, Rabbi Gershon rented an inn in a small village where Reb Israel could make a living and support his wife.
When the couple took over the inn, the Baal Shem Tov built a small study house in the nearby forest where he studied all week with his Heavenly spiritual master Achiya HaShaloni. It was during this time that the Baal Shem Tov reached his profound spiritual understanding.
Rebbetzin Chana tended to the inn. Whenever a guest would arrive, she would send for the Baal Shem Tov and he would return to serve their guests. No one suspected that Reb Israel was anything other than a simple Jewish innkeeper.
For the High Holy Days, it was the Baal Shem Tov’s custom to close the inn and spend the entire month with his Rebbetzin in the city of Kitov.
Once, during the intermediate days of Succot (an eight day holiday following Yom Kippur), Rabbi Gershon noticed that his brother-in-law was not putting on Tefillin during his prayers. The fact was obvious to everyone in the shul since the Baal Shem Tov davened (prayed) at the eastern wall in the front of the synagogue.
Feeling quite annoyed with Reb Israel, he asked, “Reb Israel, why didn’t you put on your Tefillin today?”
The Baal Shem Tov answered, “I saw an interpretation in a particular holy sefer (book) that he who puts on Tefillin during the intermediate days (between the first two and last two days of the holiday) is sentenced to death.”
Rabbi Gershon turned from annoyed to angry that his wife’s brother was following the customs of the Kabbalist from Germany instead of the prevailing customs of the Jewry of Galicia. So he took him to the Rav of the city to discuss the matter.
When they came to the house of the Rav, Rabbi Gershon touched the mezuzah at the entrance-way and then kissed his fingers, as is the custom. The Baal Shem Tov also touched the mezuzah but didn’t kiss his fingers.
When Rabbi Gershon saw this, he became angrier, “Reb Israel, what is wrong with you?”
When Rabbi Gershon and the Baal Shem Tov entered the study of the Rav, the Baal Shem Tov removed the spiritual disguise from his face. The Rav saw a great spiritual light shining from the Baal Shem Tov’s face and immediately stood up. The Baal Shem Tov then replaced his spiritual disguise and the Rav sat down. This happened several times. The Rav was bewildered and frightened because Reb Israel first looked like a holy man and then returned to looking like a simple man.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Gershon looked at the Rav’s strange antics and wondered what was going on.
Rabbi Gershon explained to the Rav about Reb Israel’s refusal to put on Tefillin and his failure to kiss the mezuzah.
The Rabbi took the Baal Shem Tov aside and asked him, “Who are you? Please tell me the truth.”
The Baal Shem Tov disclosed to the Rav that in fact he was a holy man but ordered him not to tell anyone what he saw or heard. “You are the first to see my true nature and the time has not yet arrived for me to reveal my spiritual status to others.”
When they returned to Rabbi Gershon, the Rav said, “I have discussed the matters with him. He would not knowingly disregard our customs. He acted in innocence.”
As soon as Rabbi Gershon and the Baal Shem Tov left, the Rav examined his mezuzah. He found that it was defective and he understood why the Baal Shem Tov had not kissed it.
And so it was.
Tzvi Meir Cohn attended Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after completing his university studies in Engineering and Law. While studying at the Yeshiva, he discovered a deep connection to the stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. His many books about the Baal Shem Tov can be found in the Breslev Store. He can be contacted at howard@cohnpatents.com.

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