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Esteemed Reader: February 2014 

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

Opening my eyes, I saw a line drawing of some bearded Hasidim on the cover of a book on the shelf in the corner of the cabin. The cover was faded yellow and coming unglued. It was illuminated by a ray of early morning sunshine shining through the hatch. The waves slapped the side of the boat in a steady rhythm that sounded like a cat drinking milk.

Why hadn't I noticed this mysterious, ancient-looking book before, I wondered. I struggled to stir my mind from its sleepy torpor as if I were using a butter knife to mix back the separated oil in a jar of peanut butter that sat on the shelf too long.

The low ceiling of the cabin bunk made movement inside as difficult as sitting up in a coffin, but I managed to reach over and grasp the fragile volume. It smelled musty and the pages were as thin and delicate as my grandmother's skin. I began to read.

"When God was about to create Adam, a number of souls, knowing that all the souls then living in heaven would share in the sin of created Adam, fled to a far place outside the boundaries of heaven, and hid themselves in a corner of chaos. There they waited until after the first sin was done...."

"The soul of Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, was one of that band of innocents who escaped the sin of Eden. And this is how he came to be born on earth..."

Boat life is simple and elemental. Water in all directions heightens a sense that whatever one has, has been brought from elsewhere. This is true of objects, but also thoughts and ideas. After some days the unintentional meditation on water has the effect of washing away the messy mental detritus of life; the stuff of going places in cars, checking items off lists, making logistical decisions, and meeting deadlines. Cleansed of baggage, a sensitive emulsion remains in the mind, and what lands there can surprise like tasting a ripe raspberry just picked from the bush.

That was the quality of reading about the life of the Baal Shem Tov, who, in his life, was an extraordinary teacher and guide among the Hasidim of 18th century Poland, and afterward, whose life and deeds became the subject of innumerable teaching stories.

After some time my children awoke. I began to read aloud, and the two boys crawled onto my bunk and arranged their bodies alongside mine snuggling their heads into the crook of each arm.

"When Israel was five years old, his father was dying..." the story began, and grew like a magical sheet of paper that keeps unfolding, endlessly revealing new folds to unfurl.

After his father dies, the boy Israel retreats to the woods and makes himself a moss-bed in a cave, living on berries and wild plants. At 10, he appears in a town and begins to help the schoolmaster by rousing the children in the village and bringing them to school. It is the first appearance in his role as a shepherd of men.

"Soon the people of the village began to feel that the children were changed..."

"At dawn, the boy Israel went from house to house, calling to his followers. When he had gathered all his herd, he would lead them toward the fields, quite in the opposite way from the school. And then he would begin to sing. And the other children would also begin to sing; so they would go a long way through the fields and through the woods, going in a great circle until they came to the schoolhouse. In the late afternoon he would lead them again singing through the woods and fields, they would come carrying green branches in their hands, with flowers woven in their hair."

One of the boys on my arm asks what the title Baal Shem Tov means. The title means "Master of the Good Word," I tell him. It refers to the unutterable name known only by the select who are prepared with the capacity to hold such powerful vibration. The Baal Shem Tov was one who knew and was able to speak this word, which is referred to in John's gospel (which it could be argued arises from the same tradition), when he says "In the beginning was the Word...".

On a boat at sea, we taste the flavor of the life of a crazy-wise being, imbibing like medicine the image of a way of knowing, being, and doing that is at once illogical and shows another order of logic.

The cabin is getting hot as the sun moves higher in the sky, and the wind is good, which means it's time to sail.

"We should be so free, to be able to draw on the known and the unknown alike, and as needed," I say almost to myself.

"Yes," the children quietly agree, and we get ourselves to the breakfast table.

Speaking of...

  • Jason Stern experiences Hasidism and the sea.

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