Reviewed for Tikkun magazine by Estelle Frankel, author of Sacred Therapy
ELIE WIESEL ONCE wrote that "God made man because he loves stories!" If so, then God must be happily reading Yitzhak Buxbaum's new book, The Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov.
This latest offering by one of the most prolific contemporary scholars of Jewish mysticism masterfully evokes the magical-mystical world of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the eighteenth-century Jewish renewal movement, Hasidism. The Besht, as he is known, was a religious revolutionary whose teachings on love, joy, and simple devotion continue to influence all Jewish denominations to this day.
As a practicing psychotherapist, I am particularly interested in the Besht's use of storytelling in his work as a healer. Spinning seemingly simple tales about horses and crops with profound kabbalistic teachings embedded in them, the Besht lovingly planted stories like magic seeds in the soul of his listeners, who would sooner or later receive their hidden message.
In his first encounter with Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, for example, the Besht used story-medicine to heal a tormented soul: "Listen closely," said the Besht, "I was once driving a coach with three horses√ëone brown, one black, and one white√ëand the}' were not able to neigh. A gentile peasant called out to me from his coach, 'Slacken the reins!' I slackened the reins, and once again the horses were able to neigh. Do you understand what I'm saying?" (p. 138) Hearing this simple tale evidently had a profound effect on Yaakov Yosef, who instantly intuited its message: in order to serve God with love, he needed to learn how to use the energy of his animal soul rather than suppress it through fasting and excessive asceticism, as had been his practice.
Stories are a powerful means of communicating profound truths in a way that bypasses the ego's resistance to new ideas√ëhence their therapeutic value. When we allow ourselves to be moved by a story, we drop down to a place deep inside where we are innocent, unjaded, and open to outcome. As the ego relaxes its guard, transformational shifts can occur.
Buxbaum clearly wishes us to read these tales in this transformational way. And in his unabashedly devotional style, Buxbaum offers us an extremely comprehensive and beautifully written life in stories that read like a devotional biography. However, readers looking to get a more critical, multi-dimensional sense of the Besht as a real person, with his own doubts and struggles, will not find what they seek here. Buxbaum's Besht is more along the lines of the mythic Adam Kadmon, the ideal man he became in the religious imagination of his followers. Buxbaum sees his book as a sefer kadosh, a holy book, that he hopes people will not just read, but also study as scripture.
I find myself rereading these beautiful tales and being inspired by them, a sign perhaps that Buxbaum has accomplished his aim. And I notice that I keep going back to certain tales, like a child who asks to hear the same story night after night. It is said that children long to hear the same story over and over when it "stores" archetypal wisdom that "re-stores" their sense of fractured wholeness. These Besht tales do just that for me; they restore my hope and faith in the power of love and simple, wholehearted devotion. They also faithfully transmit the "light" and "fire" of a tzaddik√ë a realized being with the power of a Hindu avatar or sat guru, something we rarely find in Jewish folklore.
Reb Shlomo of Radomsk once said, "A person who believes all the miracle stories is a fool, yet one who does not believe them is wicked." Instead of reading this book with a rational, historical eye, take these stories into the heart of your inner-child or inner-tzaddik and allow them to awaken your soul and illuminate your life.