15 Tamuz 5781 / Friday, June 25, 2021 | Torah Reading: Balak
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Ki Tavo: The Birth of Schneur Zalman    

Ki Tavo: The Birth of Schneur Zalman

The Baal Shem Tov warned Reb Boruch not to talk to others about their son, particularly regarding his apparent intelligence - as is the nature of parents...


Parshat Ki Tavo
V’haya ki tavo el ha’aretz… – When you come into the Land” (Devarim 26:1).
When the soul descends from its Heavenly source into "the Land," into this physical world, to fulfill its purpose (Chassidic teaching).
* * *
In a small shtetl in Poland, during the times of bloody pogroms and fierce antisemitism, there lived what appeared to be a simple Jew by the name of Reb Boruch, and his wife, Rivkah.
Actually, Reb Boruch was a tzaddik nistar (a hidden holy man) and one of the members of a group of such tzaddikim which included the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Boruch and his wife Rivkah had been married for some years already but had not been blessed with a child.
At the prompting of his wife, Reb Boruch traveled to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, for a blessing. He traveled many miles in the freezing, snowy winter to reach Mezhibuzh. There the holy tzaddik indeed blessed Reb Boruch and his wife that they merit to be blessed with a child, and added the words that the child “should reveal Heavenly light hidden in this world.” Soon thereafter Rivka became pregnant and on “chai Elul” – the eighteenth day of the month of Elul - twelve days before Rosh Hashanah, and the same birthday of the holy Baal Shem Tov, Rivka gave birth to a baby boy whom they named Schneur Zalman.
On that day, the Baal Shem Tov’s chassidim took note of the particularly jubilant mood of their Rebbe. He led the daily prayers with deep kavanah (intention), and afterwards a festive meal was held at which the tzaddik sang lively niggunim (chassidic melodies) and even danced with unusual joy. During the festive meal, the Baal Shem Tov spoke: “Today a neshamah chadasha (a new soul that had not previously occupied a physical body) has come into the world. This soul will illuminate the world by spreading Torah and Chassidut (mystical explanations of the Torah) to sustain the spiritual well being of the Jewish people and will bring closer the coming of Moshiach.”
After Yom Kippur, as is the tradition of chassidim, Reb Boruch visited his Rebbe and requested a blessing for his newly born son. The Baal Shem Tov asked Reb Boruch to keep the news of the birth of their son a secret, and also gave specific instructions for the care and education of their child.
In the following weeks, the Chassidim noted that the Baal Shem Tov mentioned the name Schneur Zalman three times during his Torah discourses.
The following year, Reb Boruch again returned to visit his Rebbe for the Yom Tov holy days. The Baal Shem Tov was very interested in the growth of young Schneur Zalman, and asked Reb Boruch specific questions about the child. Again the Baal Shem Tov warned Reb Boruch not to talk to others about their son, particularly regarding his apparent intelligence - as is the nature of parents.
The following year, Reb Boruch again came to the Rebbe for Yom Tov and the Baal Shem Tov again asked many questions about the welfare of the child. Before departing for home, Reb Boruch told the Rebbe that, God willing, on his next visit, when the child would turn three years old, he would bring his Schneur Zalman with him.
On the following chai Elul, Reb Boruch brought young Schneur Zalman along with his mother and his aunt, Devorah Leah, to the Baal Shem Tov to celebrate little Schneur Zalman’s Upscherinish (the first cutting of a boys hair at three years old).
The Baal Shem Tov appeared very pleased at the joyous event. He cut some of the boy’s locks, and then placing his holy hand son the boy’s head, and blessed little Schneur Zalman with the words of the Birchat Kohanim (priestly blessing).
During their visit, young Schneur Zalman asked his mother who was the “old” man that had been the first to cut his hair. His mother told him he was his Zaida (grandfather), the term used until this day by chassidim when speaking of the Baal Shem Tov.
Following the joyous event, the Baal Shem Tov asked the child’s mother and aunt to return home and not to reveal the events of the day.
Later that day of chai Elul, there was a special gathering of the chassidim in celebration of the Baal Shem Tov’s birthday. The Baal Shem Tov mentioned that the Torah tells us that at three years of age Avraham Avinu (the Patriarch Abraham, our father) recognized that there is one God. The Baal Shem Tov continued: “There is a great neshamah [soul] in Poland that today reached the age of three years old and has recognized the Creator. He too will undergo mesirut nefesh (great self sacrifice) to reveal a new teaching of the holy Torah that will touch the souls of all Jews."
At that time there was a great Torah scholar named Rabbi Yissochar Dov of Kalbink. The Baal Shem Tov arranged for him to be young Schneur Zalman’s teacher, but asked Reb Yissochar Dov not to tell Schneur Zalman that the Baal Shem Tov had sent him.
Under the watchful eye of the Baal Shem Tov, the young Schneur Zalman flourished in his studies. He later became one of the ‘Chevraya Kadisha’ – the holy brotherhood of disciples of the Baal Shem Tov - who would spread the teachings of Chassidut through eastern Europe, and who would later become known as ‘The Alter Rebbe' - the first Rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch.
And so it was.
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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