Sunday, March 13, 2011

Confronting Heaven on the Harshest of Decrees: A Brief History

Photo of the Baal Shem Tov's handwritten siddur (open to Amidah, Matzmiach
Keren Yeshuah
through Modim), with his students' names in the margins
to help him remember them in his prayers (Agudas Chabad Library/Wikipedia)

The brutal murders in Itamar were a din kashe - a harsh judgment of the highest degree from the Almighty, whose ways are worlds beyond us. Hashem is the true judge and Heaven only knows what is coming.

In the Roman conquest of Jerusalem at the turn of the first millenia, ten of the great rabbis of the generation were brutally slaughtered by the enemy. The generation was aghast -- what on earth or in heaven could explain the brutal murder of not one, but 10 holy souls, all at once, each tortured in a different way, and even beyond the individual level of suffering -- the elimination of not one, not two, but the ten pillars of the yidden's leadership, the knockout of the heart of Torah learning and guidance? In a dire search for answers, with the future of yiddishkeit at stake, the Cohen Gadol (High Priest) Rabbi Yishmael ascended to heaven to ask after the origin of the decree.

In heaven, Rabbi Yishmael was told that the 10 righteous souls of his generation were taken to atone for sin of the 10 brothers who sold their brother Joseph, the Tzaddik of the generation, into destitution, slavery and despair. Out of jealousy and concern for themselves rather than the future of the Jewish people, the brothers attempted to scuffle the subtle voice of truth in their midst, taking the future into their own hands and raising their own hands against God's plan.

The state of leadership of the Jewish people today is painful, to say the least. We have very few true leaders who would truly sacrifice themselves for the wellbeing of each soul of Am Yisrael. Politics, selfishness, interests and agendas have infiltrated even the most sublime of messages and campaigns. And yet, is this enough to explain the pain of the 12-year old girl who is now faced with pictures of her slaughtered family in her mind that even the world cannot bear to see, and the pain of her 8-year-old brother who is crying and asking "Where is Daddy!?"

Enter the second aliyat neshama - ascent of the soul - of Jewish history. In the 1740's, the Jews of Zaslav, Siytovka and Dunevich were brought under the rotten influence of Sabbateanism that was creeping across Eastern Europe Jewry. Certain members of the normative rabbinical establishment were distraught at the influence of Sabbateanism on the purity of Jewish minds and souls, and collaborated with Christian leaders to convert groups of Sabbatean Jews to Christianity -- at least that way they would not taint their Jewish souls or influence others in the community. Yet after the Jews converted to Christianity, they were slaughtered en masse by Christian authorities.

The holy Ba'al Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus, the teacher of Kabbalah to the people, was appalled by the rabbis of his generation behind such schemes. He made dire efforts on earth and in heaven to stop the conversion of Sabbatean-influenced Jews, arguing that a Jew can always do teshuva, but that once a Jew converts, he is cut off forever. He urged his contemporaries to see the Sabbatean Jews first of all as Jews and to never give up on them. And yet this time he was too late, and before his eyes groups of Sabbatean Jews were killed as a result of the rabbinical establishment's policies.

On Rosh Hashama of 1746 (5507), the Ba'al Shem Tov ascended to heaven again, like Rabbi Yishmael, to confront the heavenly court about the harsh decrees on the Jews of his generation. In response to his deep love for his people, the Besht was brought into the chamber of the Mashiach, in which he had the following conversation, as he recorded in a letter to his brother-in-law, Rabbi Gershon of Kitov:

I went higher until I actually entered the palace of the King Messiah, and I saw face to face that which I had never before seen from the day I reached maturity until now. And what was revealed to me is not for you. Also revealed to me were wondrous and fearful things regarding the depths of Torah which I have not seen and heard and no ear has heard in many years. And it occurred to me to ask him - perhaps all this delight and rejoicing is in preparation for his good coming.
And when will the Master come?
And his lofty reply is not to be revealed. But in this way will you know of it: when your teaching becomes famous and manifest in the world, and your wellsprings pour outwards,  that which I have taught you and you have comprehended, and they [others] will also be capable of performing unifica­tions and having [soul] ascents as you do. Then will all the kelippot (shells) be consumed, and it will be a time of grace and salvation.
And I was astonished and I had a great sorrow about the extent of time involved, and when such a thing might be possible.
The answer to the divine decree behind the tragedy of Rosh Hashana 1746 was kept secret from us, but in the footsteps of the tragedy, we learn that the Besht had a face-to-face conversation with the Mashiach, his only equal in love for the Jewish people down to the core. This interaction has guided the spread of the teachings of Chassidus around the world since the Besht until today, with every letter spoken or written containing the deep anticipation of Mashiach.

Many tragedies faced the Jewish people during the time of the Besht; Chassidus - the inner dimension of Torah, and the teachings that prepare the world for Mashiach - was not born out of peaceful monks meditating by a river, but out of a time of decrees on the Jewish people from left and right, much like today.

Some decrees the Besht was able to intercede, but others he there only to comfort the victims and their loved ones, and keep the spirit of Am Yisrael burning, no matter what. As a story told in the Yizkor Book of  my family's village in Tarnobrzeg (Dzikov) tells, when the community sent messengers to the Ba'al Shem Tov in response to a Polish decree to execute eight Jews on false charges, they were told it was too late; that the decree in heaven was already signed.

Sometimes, the prayer of one Jew who feels the pain of his generation can skip through all the worlds and change something which even the greatest of tzaddikim cannot reach. The following story is recounted about the true secret of the Baal Shem Tov's power of prayer:
The saintly prayers of the Baal Shem Tov and his close circle were unable to lift a harsh Heavenly decree they perceived one Rosh Hashanah (New Year). After extending the prayers beyond their time, the danger remained. An unlettered shepherd boy entered and was deeply envious of those who could read the holy day's prayers. He said to God "I don't know how to pray, but I can make the noises of the animals of the field." With great feeling, he cried out, "Cock-a-doodle-do. God have mercy!"
Immediately, joy overcame the Baal Shem Tov, and he hurried to finish the day's prayers. Afterwards, he explained that the heartfelt prayer of the shepherd boy opened the Gates of Heaven, and the decree was lifted.
At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with the 12-year old girl, Tamar Fogel, who found her family slaughtered on Friday night. At 13:30 on Sunday Israel time, Tamar, her brothers who survived the attack and grandparents will gather to bury their loved ones.

And so we stand, a generation deprived of true leadership, desparate for guidance, belching with pain from harsh decrees, who will stand for us in this generation? We need Mashiach now!! And to hasten his arrival, we heed the lesson of the shepherd boy who saved his generation from the harshest of decrees: I am but a yid at the end of history...all I know how to do is cry/beg/scream...God have mercy!

Never underestimate the power of the love of one Jew for another

From Heaven may you be Comforted! 

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