Before the Baal Shem Tov was the Besht…
Israel was called to his father Eleazer’s death bed.
“Mien yingele, my precious child,” he said, “we are always surrounded by the Satan, the angel of folly, but now the world is shrouded by dark clouds, like the dark you could touch when Hashem Yisborekh punished Egypt, and no one can pray surrounded by such darkness. But you know G!d’s sacred name. Remember it! So long as you do, the Satan cannot let the Evil One pass into your life. You are safe.” Eleazer died.
The kehilla gathered to foster Israel. He went to school, but he could not bend over a sefer and learn like the others did. The fields, the trees, the forest, this was his world, and there were times when he would run to catch what the breeze blew his way. The teacher? Chase him, catch him, and bring him back to bend over his sefer.
One day the teacher said “I will not chase him today.”
That was the day Israel heard Shomayim and Aretz, Earth and Heaven, call him. Some say this was they day he became the Baal Shem Tov. So he went to heed their call. Rough and wild, he lived alone, slept outside, and ate the wild produce. The beasts and the birds speak, Israel learned what they said and how they said it. He now knew what the saintly Rebbe Shimon knew, that nothing was better for any body than silence, and there were times he would sha! shtill! and then all he could hear was Earth singing sweetly to G!d. The time came, as always it does also for us, when Israel returned from the wild.
His job was to collect the children and bring them to school. He had an unusual route. He lead them through the safe wild places he knew, teaching them what songs he knew, and they would march through meadow and forest. Prayers they uttered reached the Throne of Heaven. Moshiach, the Messiah, was alerted. “Is it now the time,” Moshiach wondered, “for me to descend?”
The Satan watched. Heaven’s prosecutor stood respectfully before G!d and said “Let me contend against Israel,” and G!d permitted. And thus the Satan came down to our level, but could find no allies. No beast, nor bird, nor even the insects, would support the prosecution of one such as Israel. Adam Zev was another matter.
The forester Adam Zev made his home near the village where the children lived. A cursed man without a soul, when the moon was bright he became a werewolf. A bush became his bed at dawn. Exhausted, his humanity returned, and he would sleep. The Satan found him and removed his heart. Part human and part animal, yes, but no monster until the Satan transplanted his heart.
The monster Adam Zev once appeared as Israel led the children through the fields to the school. The parents now refused to send their children with Israel. “A wolf ran from the trees,” Israel said to them, “and it won’t happen again.” Others say this is when Israel became the Baal Shem Tov.
The parents trusted him and sent their children with him the next day. “Don’t be afraid,” he told the children. “Trust G!d and call G!d’s Name.” And that’s what they did when Adam Zev appeared again, even though they were terrified.
And Israel? This is when I think he became the Baal Shem Tov.
Israel walked into Adam Zev and removed the monster’s heart. He held it in his hand, a quivering creature like a bird with a broken wing. A quality of mercy he had not yet mastered now filled Israel, so he became its master, and he led the children to school.
The children did not master this quality of mercy. They stopped going through field and forest. They became again like their parents, serious, with heads bent over books. Israel? Over time it happened that he came to be called “Baal Shem Tov.” There were other baalei shem but none were like him.