Thursday, August 2, 2012

Israel ben Eliezer: The Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760)

Israel ben Eliezer was born in August 1698 in the village of Okopy. At that time the village was in Poland but, following many shifts in borders, it is now in Ukraine.

His parents, Eliezer and Sara, were Jewish and poor. His father died when he was five years old. Eliezer’s last words to him: fear no one but God and love every Jew unconditionally.

As school, Israel was no doubt taught Torah and Talmud, but he was frequently absent. He preferred to enjoy the beauty of God’s good creation alone in the woods.

Later Israel worked as a teaching assistant in village schools. He tried to practice an unconditional love for each student as he taught them to love God, honor their parents, and respect all of God’s creatures. He thoroughly enjoyed singing and sharing stories with them. Eventually he became a teacher at the school in Tovste (now in Ukraine).

He became known for his honesty and wisdom. Fellow Jews with serious disagreements would come to him for a just solution to their problems. Ephraim of Brody, a wealthy and educated Jew, was so impressed with Israel that he promised him his daughter Chana in marriage. Ephraim died soon afterward, but Chana married Israel despite her powerful brother’s opposition. Her brother thought that Israel was too poor and uneducated to make a suitable husband.

Soon after their marriage, Israel and Chana moved to a village in the Carpathian Mountains. There Israel dug up clay and lime which Chana would then sell. During his years of work in the woods, Israel learned how to use many different plants as medicines. He used this knowledge to treat people with a variety of illnesses.

Around 1740, Israel and Chana moved to Medzhybizh (then in Poland but now in Ukraine). He thought the right time had come for him to become the teacher of a new way of understanding Judaism. The movement he started later became known as Hasidism or Hasidic Judaism. From this time Israel became increasingly known as the Baal Shem Tov or Master of the Good Name.

Jewish leaders committed to a more traditional understanding of Judaism opposed him. Others, such as Meir Margolius, chief rabbi of Lviv, supported him.

Israel practiced joy as a way of living. He related to other people with joy because he believed God walked equally close to everyone. His commitment was to empower others to discern and affirm God’s presence in their lives. He especially enjoyed doing this with people whom others regarded as sinners.

He lived simply but discouraged the practice of asceticism. Israel believed that taking care of our bodies, for example, was as important as taking care of our souls since God had created both and both therefore were good.

Israel thought that study of the Talmud was not as important as staying close to God in our daily living. Witnessing to the presence of God, and helping others to do the same, was the most meaningful way of expressing our love of God and care for others.

Israel ben Eliezer died in May 1760 in Medzhybizh and was buried there.

Copyright © 2012 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.