From Rabbi Yisroel Yaakov Klapholz, “Tales of the Baal Shem Tov” (Pe’er HaSefer), Vol. II, sec. 6, translated from “Hatamim,” a Chabad journal.
The Baal Shem Tov’s Heavenly Teacher
In one of his letters, dated Tuesday, Parshas Devorim, 5493, the Baal Shem Tov tells the following:
“I was born in the village of Okup [Podolia] in the year 5458. When I was five years old I was orphaned from my father and mother, of blessed memory. The community provided me with food and drink, clothing, and tuition. But when the leaders of the kehillah saw that I was not doing well at my lessons -- they let me go.
“I went from city to city, from settlement to settlement, until I came to the city of Brody. When I was eighteen years old I became a melamed (teacher) for the very young children. I became Reb Gershon of Kitov's brother-in-law when I married his sister.
“I did not know it at the time” – writes the Baal Shem Tov in his letter – “that in the merit of my sacred ancestors, I had been given a precious soul.
“Then once on a Friday afternoon, Parshas Vayeshev, at one o'clock in the afternoon, I fell into a deep sleep. I dreamed that I saw an old man who asked me if I knew who he was. I answered that I did not.
“He then said to me, ‘Know that I have been sent from heaven to study with you every day. Go to the mountains which surround the city, and I will come to teach you and to reveal to you how you must conduct yourself. You must, however, not reveal this dream to a soul, not even your wife. No one must know of this until I permit it.’
“When I asked him his name, he said that in the course of time I would find out. The old man disappeared and I awoke.
“I imagined that it had been only a dream and that I need not pay any attention to it. I went to the mikveh (ritual bath) to immerse myself in honor of the Shabbos. As soon as I had put my head under water -- I always used to keep my eyes open -- I saw the old man with my open eyes. A deep fear seized me, and I felt as if transformed into a different person, with a spiritual aura hovering above me.
“At the Friday night services -- Kabbolas Shabbos -- I felt everyone staring at me, but I knew not why nor wherefore.
“That night, the old man appeared to me again in a dream and said, ‘Don't think that this is merely a dream. No, my dear one, this vision is real. The proof will be evident when you will leave the city, on Sunday, to meet me between the second and third mountain. For G-d's sake, before you leave, immerse yourself four times.’ He finished his message and disappeared.
“When I awoke, I understood that this was no simple dream, but that it had been ordained from Heaven. It was all in the merit of my ancestors, of blessed memory, who had prayed before the heavenly throne that mercy be shown me that I might attain spiritual elevation.
“During the Shabbos morning services, I was called up to recite the blessing on the Torah and was honored with Maftir. I found this very unusual, for I had never before been honored with this blessing.
“During the third meal on Shabbos, my brotherin-law, Reb Gershon of Kitov, called me over and asked me, ‘Yisroelik, I notice a tremendous change in your face. Do you feel quite well?’
“I didn't answer a word, as the old man had instructed.
“When the Shabbos had departed and I said [the traditional song] ‘Eliyohu Hanovi,’ my wife asked me why I was so pale. I did not answer her, either.
“On Sunday, Parshas Mikeitz,” -- continues the Baal Shem Tov in the letter – “there fell a heavy snow, but I paid no attention to it. At eleven o'clock I went to the mikveh and after immersion headed for the designated place between the second and third mountain. The old man met me and bade me follow him. He led me into a cave in a cliff which was filled with light. A table and two chairs stood inside. Seating himself on one of the chairs, he bade me take the other and took out a book that I had never seen before. When I started reading it I felt as if an additional soul had entered my body, enlightening my eyes and opening the gates of wisdom before me.
“After two hours of study, the old man said, ‘My son, that is sufficient for today. We will continue, please G-d, tomorrow. Heed yourself, though, and don't tell a soul of this.’
“I asked him his name, but he told me that the time had not yet come for him to reveal it. He took me by the hand and we left the cave. The old man accompanied me until the city, placed his holy hands upon my head and blessed me. We continued this manner of study for a whole year, during which I never knew the name of my master and teacher.
“One day, in the summer months, as we took leave of one another, he divulged his holy name to me. I was seized with fear and awe at the great privilege of studying under such a saintly teacher, and I fell to the ground in a faint. Thank G-d, I recovered. My mentor then told me to change my residence from the city to a village. My brother-in-law helped me to move to a village near the city of Kitov. I had a tavern there and would seclude myself from Shabbos to Shabbos in the mountains. I returned home every Friday to spend the Shabbos. And every day I would study under my saintly teacher who revealed to me the most secret of secrets.
“Then my rebbe told me that the time had come for me to reveal myself to the world. It had been decreed and sealed that when I reached the age of thirty-six I must reveal myself.
“ In the year 5494” -- the Baal Shem Tov continues in his letter – “this time will have arrived. It disturbs me greatly, for I know that I will be the cause of a violent upheaval and tremendous controversy. I will have many dissenters who will wish to swallow me alive. I trust in G-d's infinite mercy, for He has never deserted me until this day and surely will never desert me in the future. Yet why do I need all this trouble? My lot is so good now. I study by myself, and I am privileged to study under my saintly teacher every day. I am not subject to the vanities of this lowly world. Now, though, I must face such a difficult challenge.”