18th Elul – becoming the owner of a good name

Elul 18  26th August 2021

Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer v’Sarah, known as the Baal Shem Tov (or BeSHT) was born on 18th Elul in 1698  and is credited with being the founder of Chasidut.

He was orphaned young and brought up by the community, and while little is known of his early life, there are stories about him going out into nature in order to pray, and he developed a particularly strong emotional and spiritual bond with God.

He worked for the community, as a teacher in the school an as the synagogue shammes (caretaker) and it is said that he became immensely knowledgeable about Jewish texts, studying on his own in his spare time – yet all the time presenting as a simple person rather than as a scholar.

Then, married and established in his home village, he began to study kabbalah, and eventually his reputation as a mystic and a healer spread. He taught a Judaism that was less rigorously intellectually based and more focussed on relationship with, and closeness to, God. It also stressed love of one’s fellow human being and the importance of prayer. There were many rabbis known as Ba’al Shem – literally the master of the name, or people of repute, but only Israel became the Ba’al Shem Tov – the person of excellent reputation.

The folk stories around him, the teachings which were written down by his students and followers rather than by the man himself, make him both very comprehensible and very mysterious. But while  his teachings and his desire to make religion accessible to the ordinary person are powerful and important, I find myself struck now in Elul by the idea of being the owner of a good name.  What do we do to enhance our own reputation and the reputation of our community? What drives us to become Ba’alei shem in our own worlds? And are we sometimes less interested in our reputation amongst those less powerful than ourselves, while focussing on how we appear to those who are more powerful?

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