The Sound of a Broken Heart

From Machon Tzomet (c)

By Zeev Kitsis, Kibbutz Hadati Yeshiva and Bar Ilan University

I have the privilege of being named after one of my ancestors who was a member of the holy group of students of the Baal Shem Tov. The name of Reb Zev-Wolf appears together with the Baal Shem Tov in several stories, in such books as “Shivchei Ha’Besht,” and others. The most famous story about him involves blowing the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. The following is the earliest version of the story:

“One time the Baal Shem Tov commanded his disciple Reb Zev-Wolf to prepare himself and learn the mental intentions of the shofar blowing, because he would blow the shofar for the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Wolf studied all the proper intentions (“kavanot”) and wrote them down on a piece of paper so that he would be able to look at it while blowing the shofar. He hid the paper in his pocket. Reb Wolf didn’t know that the Baal Shem Tov made sure that the paper would be lost. When he rose up to blow the shofar he looked for the paper everywhere, but he could not find it. Reb Wolf was so upset that he blew the shofar with a very heavy and broken heart, without any special intentions.

“Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov said to him: In the Palace of the King there are many rooms and halls, and each door to a room or a hall has a different key. But there is a better way to enter than to use the key, and this is to use an ax, which can open the locks of all the doors. The same is true of proper intentions. They are the keys to each and every gate, and every opening has the proper intention for it. However, the broken heart is an axe. It allows every person to enter all the gates and the halls of the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”

[Moshe Chaim Kalman, Or Yesharim, Warsaw, 5684 (1924), pages 104-105].

Every year I feel a special magic in the moments of silence, when we pause for a brief second in reciting the long prayers of Rosh Hashanah, during which the raw sound of the shofar rises up. The shofar itself expresses a simple sigh, the basic sound of the soul, before it has been fashioned into words or “intentions.” The Baal Shem Tov describes this simple concept for his disciple in terms of the allegory of the keys and the axe. The keys – that is, the unique Kabbalistic intentions – must be precise and executed with great care. In this way, slowly and cautiously, a person can approach the King – the King of the Universe. This corresponds to the detailed description in the ancient book about Kabbalah by Reb Yosef Jiktilia, Shaarei Orah, which gives details about how the involvement with intentions can help one very carefully enter the Palace of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The axe stands apart. This is compared to a broken heart, and it has the power in a single moment to shatter all the locked gates of the King. There is no longer any need for the intentions, the kavanot, there is no need for careful weighing of the intentions, there is no need for any knowledge and written words on a piece of paper. The only thing that is needed is the most important “intention” of all: the broken heart of a man.

However, I would still like to ask a question about this nice allegory by the Baal Shem Tov. Can one really appear before the King carrying an axe? After all, the whole essence and the task of the “Palace,” of the rooms and the halls, of the gates and the walls – is to block the entrance of anybody who does not have the proper keys and to block the way of the axe! Just imagine how a human king would react if while sitting in his palace he would suddenly hear the sound of an axe shattering the glorious locked doors. How can the Baal Shem Tov compare the two possible ways of entry into the palace – one of which is acceptable and legitimate, while the other is absurd and totally forbidden?

The Baal Shem Tov spent the last twenty-four years of his life close to a fortified palace. The small wooden Beit Midrash where the Baal Shem Tov met Reb Wolf and the other members of the group was at the center of the street of the Jews in Mezibuz. At the end of the street, a short distance from the Beit Midrash, stood one of the most impressive fortified palaces of the Ukraine, as it still stands today. At the time, Mezibuz – which today is a neglected village – was an important regional center. The mighty red walls and the watch towers of the fort protected the city and the roads leading to it from an attack by the Turks. About a year ago, as part of a group of students and teachers, we entered this fortress, without any need for keys or an axe, as formal guests of the director of the museum at the site.

I have no doubt that the high walls and the mighty locked wooden gates were in the Baal Shem Tov’s view when he told the above allegory and others, which tell the story of shattering walls and how a man can enter into the chambers of the king. But can we then suppose that the Baal Shem Tov didn’t know that a person could not use an axe to get close to the king? Didn’t he know that one needed a formal invitation and advance notice in order to be allowed to enter?

The allegory of the Baal Shem Tov makes sense only if we make an assumption – that the King hidden in the palace was waiting for somebody to come and shatter the walls that hi d him from view. The King Himself wants to see the action of an axe. The walls with which the King surrounded Himself, by which He distances himself from us and hides, serve as a test of courage, to see if we will make an effort to enter through a locked door. And in this case we can hear the simple voice of the Chassid, who does not take into account the infinite distance between man and G-d. The Chassid declares that the King is also his Father, his lover who waits for him. In this way, we can all cry out in a simple voice: “Our Father, Our King

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia although my views have naught​ to do with my employer. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

2 thoughts on “The Sound of a Broken Heart”

  1. Note: As far as I know the Baal Shem Tov had two disciples called Zev-Volf: they were known as Reb Volf Kitzes, and Reb Volf Zhitomerer. A story that only specifies the disciple’s first name could refer to either one.

    Reb Volf Kitzes is the disciple who wanted to go on aliyah, but had a vision in the mikveh in which he visited the Beis Hamikdosh, entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim, looked inside the Aron Hakodesh, and found it to be empty. He asked the angels where the luchos were, and they told him “the luchos are in Mezhibuzh”, so he decided to stay there.

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