In the Neighborhood of Bescht

This morning I was reading in A History of God (still haven’t finished this book…it’s a long one) about Hasidism, a particular school of Judaism. This rang a bell for me from the days when I was intensely interested in Judaism or perhaps from when I studied world religions. According to author, Karen Armstrong, Israel ben Eliezer was founder of the school though he was neither a scholar nor an ordained Rabbi. “He preferred to walk in the woods, singing songs and telling stories to children, to studying the Tulmud.” This was enough to get me to like him. He and his wife lived in abject poverty in southern Poland in a simple hut. Simple and Polish…more reason to like him. He made a little money digging for lime and selling it to the townspeople. Eventually he and his wife became inn keepers. When Eliezer was about 36, he announced that he became a faith healer and exorcist and journeyed throughout the villages of Poland, healing peasants and townspeople with herbal remedies, amulets and prayers. He was also a mystic. His followers called him Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, or Bescht for short.

Bescht taught his followers to look at the bright side of things. There is a divine spark in every item of creation, and this means that the whole world is filled with the presence of God. “A devout Jew could experience God in the tiniest action of his daily life-while he was eating, drinking or making love to his wife-because the divine sparks were everywhere. Men and women were not surrounded by hosts of demons (as many of his contemporaries taught)…but by a God who was present in every gust of wind or blade of grass.” The character of the Hasid should be confidence and joy.

Rather than buy into traditional schemes for salvation of the world, Bescht taught that “the Hasid was simply responsible for reuniting the sparks trapped in the items of his personal world-in his wife, his servants, furniture and food…(each Hasid had) a unique responsibility to his particular environment, which he alone can perform.” “Every man is a redeemer of a world that is all his own,” he taught, “He beholds only what he, and only he, ought to behold and feels only what he is personally singled out to feel.”

I would have loved to walk in the same neighborhoods where Bescht walked. I would have brought my children out to listen to him tell his stories, then I would have let his words sink into my own heart. Like Mr. Rogers.