18 Tishrei 5782 / Friday, September 24, 2021 | Torah Reading: Sukkot
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Bar Mitzva

Young Srulic met the two strangers, one of whom had taught him secretly when he was a little boy. Now as a bar mitzvah of 13, he no longer felt alone…


“The Baal Shem Tov – Early Years”, Part 8

In the last episode, our still young Yisraelic worked as the shamash (custodian) in a little synagogue in the holy community of Okup, where he had been born. Time passed Yisrael spent his time learning Torah in private, without anyone knowing. Suddenly, a surprise visitor, the son of Rabbi Adam Baal Shem came and gave him a book of Torah from his father.
Before that time, Yisrael worked as a teacher's assistant in a small village. When he moved to Okup, he got his job as the shamash (custodian) of the little local synagogue in Okup.
Once he started working in the synagogue of Okup, he found that when the prayers were finished and everyone left, he found there was no one to study Torah with. In fact, really didn't know what he should study.
The little synagogue had a huge bookcase filled with large volumes of Talmud and other holy books. But how could he learn anything from them? All the years of his childhood, when he had been the teacher's assistant, it had always been his task to teach the slow learners to read the Hebrew words of the prayer book and the Bible. As he patiently worked with them, they could begin understanding the Hebrew Bible. But the teacher never had time to help him learn how to study Torah.
So now that he worked in the synagogue, there wasn't anyone to teach him and all he could do was to clean and straighten the books in the synagogue. But what should he do after that?
Then, on the 18th of Elul, young Israelic's 13th birthday, everthing started to change.
Early in the morning of that day, the door of the synagogue opened and two poor men came in to daven. They each carried a pack on their backs and a walking stick. They seemed to be like the other strangers passing through Okup who stopped off to rest.
But then again, it seemed to Yisrael that he recognized one of them. The man looked like the old stranger who used to study with him when he was a small child and was saying kaddish for his father, Rabbi Eliezer. He remembered how each day, when the prayers were over and all the congregants were gone, the old man would sit and teach him Torah in the greatest secrecy. In fact, Yisraelic had promised that no one else was ever to know about them studying together, even his mother.
By this time, Yisrael was now quite certain that one of these strangers was that very man. The other stranger he did not know at all.
As he thought about this strange occurrence, Yisrael grew excited. Could it be that Heaven heard his prayer? Perhaps this stranger had come back to teach him Torah again in the greatest secrecy. How good that could be. With great respect he went over to them, bowed his head, and bid them welcome with a friendly greeting. The two strangers returned his greeting.
Then the old man he knew took him by the hand and led him to a table. On it were spread out many holy books that the stranger had taken from his bundle. He searched among them till he found an old, well worn book. He picked it up and kissed it reverently, and then told Yisrael, "This is a most holy book indeed." As he opened it to the title-page Yisrael saw the name in large sparkling letters: Zohar (the Book of Splendor). At the bottom of the title page, again in large letters, he saw the Hebrew name of Jerusalem - for it had been printed in the holy city.
Israelic could not take his eyes off it, as a great happiness filled his heart. He had never heard of this book. What was it about? Who had written it? While he wondered, the stranger kept turning the pages till he found a certain page.
He began reading a paragraph, and it was in Aramaic, the same language as the prayer of kaddish that Yisraelic used to say as a very small child because his father had passed away. Yisrael didn't understand it, but the stranger translated it all into Yiddish, the language that everyone spoke in those days.
The paragraph that the old man read was about Dovid HaMelech, who became a great king of Israel in ancient times. "0n the very day that Dovid was a bar-mitzvah, G-d said to him: You are My son; today I have given birth to you."
Yisrael was fascinated. Imagine he thought: G-d told Dovid, "You are my son!" From his thirteenth birthday, when he became a bar-mitzvah, he was reckoned as G-d's own son. If so, it would be even truer for him since both his mother and father had gone to the next world and left him an orphan. From the day of his bar mitzvah he wouldn't be an orphan any more. There was a Father in heaven for all the orphans. What were those beautiful words: "You are My son; today I have given birth to you." On his bar- mitzvah birthday he would be like a new person, just born.
The old man looked at Yisraelic's shining, enraptured face and kissed him on the forehead. "Did you understand what you learned just now?" he asked.
"Oh yes, dear teacher, I understood."
Now the second stranger asked his companion in Hebrew, "He understands?" The old stranger replied in Hebrew, "Yes, my master and teacher, he understands completely." And so Yisraelic knew that the second old man must be from the land of Israel. There everyone spoke Hebrew the language of the holy Torah.
The first stranger was turning the pages of the book again, and now he stopped at a page with the word vayikra at the top. Yisrael almost shouted for joy: he knew that word. It was the name of the first part (the first few chapters) of the Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible. And that first part he knew by heart. When he was the teacher's assistant, which was the part of the Bible which he had to teach the little boys who could not learn well. He had taught this part of the Bible so often that he knew it all clearly in his mind, word by word.
The old stranger pointed to the word atop the page. "That's vayikra," said Yisrael happily. "I know that portion of the Torah by heart."
"Very good," said the old stranger; and he began teaching Yisrael the entire page, translating every sentence into Yiddish.

To be continued next week, G-d willing…
Tzvi Meir Cohn attended Yeshiva Hadar Hatorah in Crown Heights, Brooklyn after completing his university studies in Engineering and Law. While studying at the Yeshiva, he discovered a deep connection to the stories and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov. His many books about the Baal Shem Tov can be found in the Breslev Store. He can be contacted at howard@cohnpatents.com.

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