History recounts that the Baal Shem Tov did not appoint a successor, so when he passed away on Shavuos 1760, his only son, Zvi, became the leader for a full year. According to tradition, on the first yahrzeit of his father, the Baal Shem Tov’s son disclosed that he had had a vision of his father relating that the Shechinah (God’s holy presence) had moved from Mezhubesh (the court of the Baal Shem Tov) to Mezeritch and then symbolically removed his white coat and placed it on the shoulders of Reb Dov Ber from Mezeritch.
The Maggid was a masterful imparter of his master’s teachings, but because he was physically weak, restricted to crutches and an ill individual, he could not go out and intermingle with the people. The center of chassidus was transplanted to Mezeritch and whoever was thirsty to hear chassidic teaching would travel there.
Because the Maggid could not physically take the message on the road and to the people like the Master before him, he appointed shalichim (agents) to act on his behalf.
These shalichim entered study halls and they entered beer halls – virtually anywhere that the commoners could be found. When they encountered a Torah scholar they would offer no rest until he would agree to visit the Maggid in Mezeritch, who would invariably enchant – converting a skeptic into a chassid.
Many of these scholars, after having personally imbibed the world of chassidus, would head out to the field and metamorphose towns into chassidic centers.
By the time of his death in 1772, the Maggid had attracted to his center of learning in Mezeritch some of the most brilliant minds, extraordinary personalities, and dynamic leaders of his day. He would mold them into inspired teachers and holy men. The Maggid was able to take a man of outstanding potential and develop him into “the tzaddik” that the Baal Shem Tov had described, the very key to the success of chassidus.
The popularity of the rise of chassidus did not go unnoticed by those who did not share the same allegiance. As long as the movement was limited to the commoner and isolated in a few pockets of Poland no one perceived it as a threat. But all of this had changed by 1772.
Because of the outreach work of the Maggid’s agents the movement flourished and expanded beyond all assumed, natural geographic borders. It extended to Central Poland and Galicia, Lithuania and White Russia.
But the nascent movement of chassidus not only leapt passed geographic boundaries, but it also flowed up from the commoners and impacted upon important scholars and leaders. Suddenly the non-chassidic mainstay of Polish, Lithuanian and White Russian Jewry felt threatened. Overnight, everything the chassidim did was suspect.
The hitherto reluctance to consult kabalistic texts was disregarded by the chassidim, creating panic and alarm that the influence of Shabbetai Zvi and Jacob Frank lingered yet. There was also concern that the unprecedented emphasis upon prayer would shift time-honored priorities. It had previously been assumed that only a scholar familiar with all of the intricate minutiae of the law could be considered holy and close to the Almighty. Suddenly chassidim had hoisted the unschooled commoner to an equal level of closeness to God by opening the gateway of prayer.
Prayer did not require erudition or diligence, only sincerity. The story is told of an ignorant, shepherd-boy who entered a synagogue on Yom Kippur and was taken by the sincere devotion of the congregation. He too wished to offer up his voice in prayer but was unschooled in how to pray – even how to read from a prayer book. He therefore took out his recorder and began to offer the only profound expression that he knew how to articulate.
The worshippers in the synagogue were shocked, disgraced and appalled at the boorish behavior of this simpleton, who desecrated the Yom Tov with his simple flute. A shonda, they cried in unison and derision!
Only the Baal Shem Tov came to his defense, chastising those present by admonishing, “I could see that the prayers of this shul had almost made their way to the high Heavens, but they were lodged impenetrably at the gates. It was only this sincere and utterly pure blowing of the recorder that was able to hoist and transport all the prayers of this assembly into the portals of Heaven.”
(To be continued)
Chodesh tov – have a pleasant month!