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The Best of the Besht by Harry White



Whenever the Baal Shem Tov prayed he would tremble with such fervor that no one could stand to be near him. He trembled also when he ate, but it was nothing like when he prayed. Once during the High Holy Days, the Besht prayed with such enthusiasm that a wall of the synagogue near where he prayed collapsed, burying the shammes and six of his eight sons for close to four hours. Nothing like that ever happened when he ate!


When he walked, the Besht would often lose himself in meditation for days, sometimes weeks on end, once coming to consciousness as the guest of honor at a baptism in Bavaria, the month-old grocery list still pinned to his coat sleeve.
         His mind overwhelmed with heavenly thoughts, the Besht hardly ever knew where his feet were taking him. Lost in meditation, he would often wander to the edge of some high mountain or the bank of a deep river and the Holy One, Blessed be He, would draw the mountains together so the land where he walked would be flat or bend the force of the river so the earth underfoot became firm and dry. It is said that the length and breadth of the Besht's thought was such that within his lifetime he literally transformed the geography of Eastern Europe: travelers got lost along familiar routes, and relatives and neighbors sent out to look for them would arrive at places they had never seen before. Thus it has been said, "So long as the Besht lived and thought, it was only by way of a miracle that anyone could find his way home."


The Besht did possess the power to shorten a journey, but only when he wanted to: A doctor is needed in an emergency, twenty miles becomes two and a child's life is saved. In the middle of a terrible snowstorm, a tenth man is needed for a minyan. The Besht's assistant, without even putting on a coat, opens the door of the synagogue and walks directly into Asher Friedman's kitchen which on ordinary days is on the outskirts of town. Friedman, who is washing carrots, finishes washing his carrots, turns around, screams like a chicken, then recognizing the large man standing over him to be the Besht's assistant, he drops the meat cleaver he had raised to strike the man and shouts, "What! What are you doing here? There's a door. Why couldn't you knock?"
         The assistant tells Friedman of the trouble they are having making a minyan, but for the life of him he can't remember why he didn't knock.


A woman comes to the Besht in tears. She has had a vision of her son who is away on a journey. In the vision he has fallen into a river and drowned. She begs the Besht to look for himself and tell her that what she saw is not so. The Besht asks the woman to show him in what direction her son has journeyed. She points to Scotland. The Besht turns to have a look, but can see nothing. The woman pleads with him, so he looks again, very hard this time, and then says, "Aha, I see what you mean!"
         "What! What do you see?" the woman cries out.
         And the Besht explains, "The vision you have received was delivered by one of God's Angels. But do not worry, your boy has not drowned."
         Overjoyed, the woman runs to tell her husband. Only later when she goes to thank the Besht with a large bowl of kasha varnekes and is told that the man can see no one because he is sick with a terrible cold, only then does she remember the pool of water widening round his feet as she ran from his house.


A man this time comes to the Besht--also in tears. He has spoken harsh words to his son, terrible words, and the boy has run away. The man has searched everywhere--in the fields, in the woods, and--God forbid--down river, but he finds nothing. So now he begs the Besht to see for him where his son is so that he can go and bring him home.
         "To see such things I must first go to the synagogue," the Besht says. "But even if I go to the synagogue, even there I can't see such things íf you do not swear that you really love your son." This the man swears, although he does not understand why the Besht must go to the synagogue. The Besht has never had to go anywhere to see anything!
         Once inside the synagogue, the Besht again asks, "Do you love your son and want him back?"
         "Yes! Yes!" the man replies.
         "Are you certain?" the Besht asks, this time cupping his ear like he cannot hear so good.
         "I could not live without my son," the man shouts. "I want him back."
         "Aha! That's it. That did it. I can see him now!"
         "Where? Where is he?"
         "There on the third bench."
         The man looks, and sure enough, there sits his son, rubbing his eyes. The man cannot move, so great is his amazement, so the Besht whispers in his ear, "All night your son sits lamenting how his father hates him. This makes him very tired and depressed, not to mention the rest of us, so, thank God, he is able to nap most of the afternoon, till my assistant wakes him for dinner--although this afternoon, must be your expression of love awoke him early."
         The man does not know what he can do to thank him. The Besht smiles. "Come to shul more often," he says, "and then you would know about these things."


Once the Besht was sentenced to death for refusing to kneel before a crucifix. He was imprisoned on board the king's vessel, chained to a large, dark green barrel of pork, when, sitting as far from the container as his chain would reach, he suddenly had a vision that the boat would soon capsize and sink in a dangerous narrow strait. He warned the captain to turn back or else everyone on board would drown.
         The captain told the king and the king ordered the Besht to swear, in the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He, that what he said was true. The Besht said it was true, but he refused of course to swear on the name of the Lord. So the king said, "Have this Jew who is going to die anyway put in a boat and we shall see if what he says is true."
         That was the last anyone on board heard from the Besht, except the lookout on the mast who became entranced by his song of praise to the Holy One, Blessed be He, as the small boat drifted through the narrow strait and disappeared behind the rocks.
         The king was furious. He ordered his ship to set sail for the Jew. The captain begged him not to go, but the king was so mad he would not listen. And that is how the ship capsized in the narrow strait and everyone on board drowned, except for the king's parrot which, by a miracle, lived to tell the tale.


There came a time when no rain fell upon the land and the crops began to die. The Besht offered to help, but the goyim would not let a Jew pray for them. Then one day the Count ordered the people to let the Besht pray, but not in secret. He had to pray in the town square just like the gentiles did.
         Everyone came to town to see how a Jew prays. It looked strange and funny, but for the gentiles funniest of all was that when the Besht stopped praying it did not rain. So the people laughed at him, but he said, "It will rain today," and went home.
         Many people followed the Besht home, laughing and throwing at his head very dry fruit--the only kind there was--because still it was not raining. The Besht walked into his house, closed the window shutters, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, clouds gathered and it began to rain. Such a downpour like no one had ever seen before!
         It was still raining during dinner when the Besht looked up from his soup and smiled at Leah, his daughter. "It took a bit longer this time," he said. "And do you know why? You want to know why don't you?"
         "Yes, father, why?"
         "Because Jews are not fools. When we pray for rain, we pray also that we shouldn't get wet."



Harry White is a Jew. He lives in Chicago with his gentile wife and an enlarged prostate. He has two sons (probably atheists), teaches at Northeastern Illinois University, regularly demonstrates against the Israeli occupation with 6 or 7 other Jews--10 to 12 when the weather is nice.


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