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Wednesday, 2 July 2014

How to Walk on Water

Taanis 21

One early morning, while on one of his many famous sojourns, the holy Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chasidism) arrived at an inn that appeared deserted.    He finally managed to locate the innkeeper who was deep in prayer.  It was late afternoon by the time the innkeeper emerged from his room. After greeting his guest, he apologized, “I am an ignorant man.  Nobody ever taught me how to daven (pray).  So I have no choice but to read the entire siddur (prayerbook) from cover to cover each day.”

“Let me help you,” offered the sage.  For the next two hours, he sat with the innkeeper, patiently instructing him. On small slips of paper, the Baal Shem Tov indicated which sections should be read on which days.   
“Thank you so much,” said the innkeeper, “Now I can begin to pray like a proper Jew.”

The Baal Shem Tov was happy that he now knew the purpose of his holy visit and departed.  But the innkeeper's joy was short-lived.  No sooner had the rabbi left that the siddur suddenly slipped off the shelf, and every piece of paper inserted by the Baal Shem Tov fell from its pages.
“Woe is me!” cried the innkeeper, “Who knows how many months will pass until a learned Jew will again come this way?”  Determined not to let this opportunity to begin praying properly escape him, he grabbed the siddur and ran after the Baal Shem Tov.

From the distance he saw the rabbi reach a river.
“How will he cross?” wondered the innkeeper, “The water is too deep!”  He was about to shout a warning, when he saw the Baal Shem Tov spread his handkerchief on the water, step onto it, glide smoothly across, and disappear into the woods on the other side.  In a flash, the innkeeper was at the water's edge. Spreading his handkerchief on the water, he stepped onto it and glided across, and ran down the path the Baal Shem Tov had taken.
“Wait, Rabbi!” he cried, “I need you to mark my siddur again! All your notes have fallen out!”
“How did you get here?” asked the rabbi in amazement, “How did you cross the river?”
“With my handkerchief, same as you,” replied the simple Jew.
“I think,” said the Baal Shem Tov slowly, “that you should continue to pray just the way you have up until now.”

Is there a value in practicing Judaism so simplistically? 

It is related of Nachum Ish Gamzu that he was blind in both his eyes, his two hands and legs were amputated and his whole body was covered with boils.  He was lying in a dilapidated house on a bed the feet of which were standing in bowls of water in order to prevent the ants from crawling on to him. On one occasion his disciples desired to remove the bed and then clear the things out of the house, but he said to them, “My children, first clear out the things from the house and then remove my bed for I am confident that so long as I am in the house it will not collapse.”

They first cleared out the things and then they removed his bed and the house collapsed.  Thereupon his disciples said to him, “Master, since you are wholly righteous, why has all this befallen you?”
He replied, “I have brought it all upon myself.  Once I was journeying on the road and was making for the house of my father-in-law and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink and one with all kinds of delicacies, when a poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, “Master, give me something to eat.”
I replied to him, “Wait until I have unloaded something from the donkey.”

I had hardly managed to unload something from the donkey when the man died of hunger. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, “May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind, may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off, may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated.”  My mind was not at rest until I added, “May my whole body be covered with boils.”  Thereupon his pupils exclaimed, “Alas! We see you in such a sore plight.”
To this he replied, “Woe would it be to me did you not see me in such a sore plight!”

Why was he called Nachum Ish Gamzu? — Because whatever befell him he would declare, “Gamzu l’tovah!  (This too is for the best!)  Once the Jews desired to send to the emperor a gift and after discussing who should go they decided that Nachum Ish Gamzu should go because he had experienced many miracles. They sent with him a bag full of precious stones and pearls. On the way he spent the night in a certain inn. 

During the night the people in the inn arose and emptied the bag and filled it up with earth.  When he discovered what had occurred the next morning he exclaimed, “This too is for the best.”  When he arrived at his destination and they undid his bag they found that it was full of earth.
The king thereupon desired to put all the Jews to death saying, “The Jews are mocking me.”
Nachum then exclaimed, “This too is for the best.”
Whereupon Elijah appeared in the guise of one of the Roman ministers and remarked, “Perhaps this is some of the earth of their father Abraham.  For when he threw earth against Lot’s captors, it turned into swords and when he threw straw, it changed into arrows, as it is written, “His sword makes them as dust, his bow as the driven straw.”  Now there was one province which [the emperor had hitherto] not been able to conquer but when they tried some of this earth against it they were able to conquer it. Then they took Nachum to the royal treasury and filled his bag with precious stones and pearls and sent him back with great honour.

When on his return journey he again spent the night at the same inn he was asked, “What did you take to the king that they showed you such great honour?”
He replied, “I brought what I had taken from here.”
The innkeepers thereupon razed the inn to the ground and took of the earth to the king and they said to him, “The earth that was brought to you belonged to us.”  They tested it and it was not found to be effective and the innkeepers were thereupon put to death.

What an incredible story of piety and faith!   Nothing ever fazed Nachum, he managed to look at every situation and say, “This too is for the best!” 

But let’s be honest, did he really have to proceed to the emperor once he knew he’d been robbed?  The intelligent thing to do at that point would have been to turn around and head back home.  Surely, the Jewish community would have had more pity on him and forgiven him for losing their money!

Clearly the Talmud here is teaching us a profound lesson about simple faith.  Just like the innkeeper who prayed from the beginning to the end of the siddur, Nachum was a Poshuter Yid – a simple Jew, who lived by his faith.  And his faith protected him.

Today we are losing millions of Jews to assimilation.  We ask them to rationalize their Judaism, but spirituality is not about appealing to the brain, it’s first and foremost about appealing to the heart.  When the Almighty offered us the Torah, we responded, “We will do and we will understand!”  Step one is to be passionate, enthusiastic and heartfelt.   Only once you have that faith and feeling are you ready to delve into the intricacies of G-d’s wisdom. 

We are failing to instil simple faith in our children.  You want them to love Judaism?  Teach them to love the Almighty!  You want them to find their heritage meaningful?  Teach them to have a relationship with the One Above!   Without faith, Judaism is a cold shell.  We do mitzvos to build our relationship with the Almighty.  But if you don’t believe in Him, why would you want to have a relationship with Him?

Think about G-d!  Think about the incredible world He has made.  Think about all the magic and miracles He has done in your life.  And live with simple faith!  Your life will change dramatically - you will forever feel like He is holding your hand and you could do anything - even walk on water!

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