God Before Us Always

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, often credited as the founder of Hasidism, is known as the Baal Shem Tov or by the acronym “Besht.” He lived in Mezhbizh (now Medzhybizh in western Ukraine). The Besht was ecstatically in love with God. Like Francis of Assisi, he began a grassroots movement of joyful love and service that appealed to ordinary people, not only to a scholarly elite. Rabbi Rami Shapiro explains this stream of Judaism:

The ancient Rabbis taught, “God desires the heart.” They themselves, however, seem to have preferred the head. Judaism has struggled through the ages to find a balance between heartfelt yearning for God and the intellectual mastery of God’s Word. Generally speaking, it was the head that won out. Yet, when things got too heady, the pendulum would swing in favor of the heart. The eighteenth-century Jewish revivalist movement called Hasidism was one of these heart swings. . . .

The concept of d’veikus (“clinging” or “cleaving”) is found in the Torah [the Hebrew Scriptures] where the verb davak signifies an extraordinary intimacy with the Divine: “To love YHVH your God, to listen to His voice and to cleave to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days . . .” (Deuteronomy 30:20). To achieve d’veikus is to realize that God is your life. While later Hasidic masters spoke of d’veikus as a union with God requiring the dissolution of the self, this was not the original understanding. God is your life, but your life is still yours; that is, Torah speaks of d’veikus as an experience of feeling the fullness of God present in your self without actually erasing your sense of self. . . .

The essential message and practice of early Hasidism are simple. The message: “. . . the whole earth is full of God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The practice: “. . . I place God before me always” (Psalm 16:8). Understand these and you understand Hasidism. . . . 

Although the Hasidim themselves do not use this analogy, the relationship of a wave to the ocean aptly captures the situation Hasidism says we are in. . . . Focus on yourself as a wave, and you are increasingly frantic and worried. Focus on yourself as the ocean, and you find tranquility and peace of mind. . . . Hasidism tries to wake the wave up to being the ocean. Awakening to your true nature is what it is to “place God before you always.” Everywhere you look you see God, not as an abstract spirit but as the True Being of all beings. . . .  

The Besht believed that God was everywhere and could be found by anyone whose heart was open, simple, and pure. At a time when Judaism was focused on a scholar elite, he reached out to the masses with a Judaism rich in compassion, devotion, and hope. His inner circle of disciples took his teachings out into the larger world, creating a global movement that continues to this day.  

Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales: Annotated and Explained(Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2004, 2015), xxvii, xxviii, xxix, xxxii, xxxiv.

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