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Lighting New Fires: Retelllng the Story of the Baal Shem Tov – Kol Nidre

There is a beautiful story about the 18th century Hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov, retold here by storyteller Noa Baum:

“It is told that in every generation there are times when hope threatens to leave this world. At such times, the Baal Shem Tov, the great Jewish mystic, would go into a secret place in the forest. There he would light a special fire and say a holy prayer speaking the long-forgotten most sacred name of God. The danger was averted and hope stayed alive.

In later times when disaster threatened, the Maggid of Mezrich, his disciple, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I can say the prayer.” 


Still later, his disciple, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would go to the same place in the forest and say, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire or say the prayer, but I found my way to this place, and that must be enough.” And it was. Hope stayed alive.


And later when Israel of Rizhyn needed intervention from heaven, he sat in his chair with his head in his hands and said, “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, I no longer know how to light the fire nor how to say the prayer, I can’t even find my way to that place, but I can tell the story and that must be enough.” And it was.

 And it still is. As long as stories are told, hope stays in the world.”

 I have a complicated relationship with the story. I love its images of people singing and praying and drawing strength to face hardship around a holy campfire. I love the idea that even when the place, the prayer, the melody, and the fire is gone, the story remains behind, just as powerful as the ritual it commemorates. It speaks to the power of storytelling, memory, and hope.

It’s also a cop-out.

Because if all we have to do to survive is tell the story of how things once were, we tend to neglect the more difficult work of imagining how things might be.

So much of Jewish life is centered around remembering the past: We commemorate our many tragedies and occasional triumphs. We recall the warm, fuzzy feelings of happy occasions spent with family. We feel a sense of obligation to the generations that came before us, for whom being Jewish was not always a choice. We want to feel connected to those who have, throughout history, sought wisdom and meaning, connection and comfort, within a Jewish community.

But often this remembering makes us feel like our generation is falling short. We find our Jewish communal leaders panicking over the latest population study about Jewish identity or religious affiliation. There is a constant fear of losing what we once had, or what little we still have left.

We find echoes of this in the story of the Baal Shem Tov. It puts the past on a pedestal, while devaluing the contributions being made in the present, and the potential for innovation in the future.

A blogger known as The Wondering Jews suggests that what’s wrong with this story is that “its message is precisely the opposite of the parable we should be telling. To wit: Why do we need to suggest that each generation fails more than the previous one? Why didn’t the Hasidic masters ensure that their students knew these world-saving prayers, locations, and techniques? Why did the disciples resign themselves to being unable to carry on, or build on, their teachers’ traditions?”

In other words, this story stands in conflict to everything we already know about Jewish history. We are the descendants of a people who figured out not only how to walk through fire, but how to create something new out of the ashes. We are part of a tradition that migrates, adapts, and iterates, even as we preserve the ancient stories, by telling them again and again.

This may be why The Wondering Jews reimagines the story of the Baal Shem Tov this way:

“At times of great crisis, the Baal Shem Tov would go to a special place in the middle of a forest and beseech God to avert the danger. And the crisis would be averted.

After the Baal Shem Tov passed on, his student, the Maggid of Mezrich, would, at times of great crisis, go to the same special place in the forest.  He composed a special prayer that he would utter each time such action was needed. And the crisis would be averted.

After the Maggid of Mezrich passed on, his student, Moshe Leib of Sasov, would, at times of great crisis, go to the same special place in the forest.  He would recite the Maggid of Mezrich’s prayer, adding a special prayer from his own heart.  He would also light a fire to ensure that any wandering travelers would be able to find him, along with light, warmth, and sustenance. And the crisis would be averted.

After Moshe Leib passed on, his student, Israel of Rizhyn, would bring his students to the same special place in the forest.  He would teach them the Maggid of Mezrich’s prayer and encourage them to add a prayer of their own.  He would show them how to light the same guiding fire that Moshe Leib lit. And they would sit by the fire and learn the story of the Baal Shem Tov, the Maggid of Mezrich, and Moshe Leib of Sasov.  


And the Holy Blessed One would rejoice.”

 Rather than each generation losing some element of the magic formula for averting a crisis, in this version each generation preserves the ritual and adds something new to it. They remember the teachings of those who came before them, and honor them by building upon the traditions of the past.

But even in this version, the teachers and students keep returning to the exact same spot, when, we know from Jewish history, and from our own short life as a synagogue, that geography is often the first thing to change.

In the five years that I have been with you at Kol Ami, pretty much everything has changed, in my life, in life of the congregation, and in the world as we know it. Some of these changes we consciously chose, and some were beyond our control. None of them were easy or painless. If all these changes have been jarring for me, I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult they must feel for those of you who have been here from the beginning, through all (or even most) of our ups and downs.

It’s no secret that we have experienced some difficult times. We’ve worked hard these past few years to affirm that we are still the same old Kol Ami: even with a new rabbi, even on Zoom, even at a new campus. We are still intimate and dynamic, committed and creative, warm and inclusive. Sometimes we have setbacks or make mistakes as we try to live up to these ideals. But I wholeheartedly believe that the essence of our community is still here. And if you’ve chosen to join us tonight, there must be a part of you that believes that too.

However, we cannot deny that Kol Ami has also changed dramatically. We have lost some of the autonomy that comes with having our own building, even as our new endowment will keep our fires burning for years to come.

For many of us, High School Road was our “secret place in the forest.” We knew, and we still know, that we are more than our building. But over the past three years, as we’ve tried to get “back to normal,” we’ve felt its absence.

Whether because of larger demographic shifts or specific challenges we’ve faced as a synagogue, we are smaller than we used to be. We are older, on average, than we used to be (though we’re probably the still the youngest, on average, on the Old York Road Corridor).

I’m not saying any of this because I think that we aren’t aware, but because it needs to be acknowledged and spoken aloud. Things are not the same as they once were. Things will never be exactly the way they once were, whatever past era we are thinking of at this moment. That doesn’t mean we can’t have a bright future. That just means it’s going to look different than we might have imagined. And it’s going to take work.

There are days when nostalgia—literally the pain of remembering—can be debilitating. But believe me when I say, I have so much hope for us and for the Jewish future. Where does my hope come from? From the sparks I see rising from each person I am privileged to meet, and every encounter I am privileged to have, through our work at Kol Ami.

This year I saw sparks rising as six of our teens spoke truth to power at their representatives’ offices during the L’Taken Social Justice Seminar in Washington, D.C. I watched as they connected with Jewish teens from around the country, in a space that was joyful and affirming. This was especially moving, as these teens had spent much of middle school or high school in lockdown; their b’nai mitzvah and confirmations were held entirely or mostly online.

I saw sparks rising as four of our 10th graders, who were busier than any young people I’ve ever met, devoted time and effort to becoming confirmed this year. They spoke of the importance of kindness, compassion, and knowledge–values they learned at Kol Ami. They promised to take responsibility for repairing the world, continuing their learning, being involved in the Jewish community, and passing on our traditions to the next generation.

I see sparks rising from our students who are preparing for their b’nai mitzvah. They take so much pride in their growing knowledge, and they love being together. They are thoughtful about building their Jewish lives, and even at this young age, they know they are responsible for making the world better.

Whenever I spend time with our young people at Kol Ami or at our URJ summer camps, I find that this generation is kinder, more creative, more resilient, and more committed to repairing the world than we could ever have hoped. They are accepting and supportive of each other’s diverse identities and abilities. They embrace the traditions that we are passing along to them, and are also composing new prayers, singing new songs, telling new stories, and lighting new fires.

It’s not just our children who give me hope for the future. Even though we’ve gotten smaller, I see sparks rising from the people who have stayed with us, and supported us through these tumultuous years. I see sparks rising from the people who still reach out to us, wanting to become a part of this community. Yes, there are numbers we have to crunch to make it all work in this new reality. But people are still choosing us. People are still choosing Judaism, whether for the first time, or returning. There is wisdom, beauty, and meaning to be found here. And there will never cease to be people who are looking for that in their lives.

There have been many generations of Jews who thought that they were the end of the line, either because of persecution, exile, or assimilation. Two generations ago, there were those who thought that intermarriage would be the end of us. A colleague of mine once likened this to 19th century city-dwellers worrying about increasing horse traffic, while visionaries were inventing the automobile. While many in the Jewish community were panicking, the Reform movement, and Kol Ami in particular, were figuring out how to set a place at the table for these new families.

The world we live in looks so radically different from the world in which our ancestors lived. Why wouldn’t it look different for our children? Why wouldn’t it change dramatically, even in our lifetimes? How can we even imagine what’s coming next? We can rail against the way things are changing, or we can figure out how to be a part of the change.

As we have learned over the last few years, living through change can be incredibly difficult, especially when we aren’t sure what’s coming next.

And wherever it is we are headed, it may take a long time to get there. Which means that we also have to think about what kind of community we’d like to be in the meantime.

At the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, a teacher asked me to set an intention for how I wanted to show up for the High Holy Days this year. This is what I wrote:

“I choose to be present with this community, in this moment, and to create meaningful experiences and connections for the people we have, in the place where we are, right now. I invite our community—members, staff, leadership—to take part in shaping our present and our future.”

The best thing we can do for this community during this time of transition is to show up and connect to the community we have right now. And the next best thing we can do is to share what we love about Kol Ami with those who haven’t yet connected with us, and invite them to be a part of our community. We don’t need to evangelize, that’s not our thing. But we can help spiritual seekers to find their place around the fire, and ask them to help us write the next chapter in our story.

Long ago, when our ancestors were in crisis, they went deep into the forest, lit a fire, and spoke the sacred words of a prayer. Now, once again, we find ourselves in crisis. We don’t know any more where that magical place in forest is. Some of those songs, prayers, and stories have been forgotten. Some of those fires have long since gone out. But others have persisted. And there are new fires waiting to be kindled; new sparks seeking a place to land.

There are many ways that future generations might tell the story of Kol Ami. And here is one of them:

In 1994, in a house on Robin Hood Road, our Founding Rabbi Elliot Holin lit the fire that would become Kol Ami. This fire was fed by a small group of people, committed to Jewish traditions and progressive values, inclusion and innovation.

We carried this flame with us to Abington Friends School and the Keswick Theater, to Gratz College and Melrose B’nai Israel. For a long time, we tended our fire on High School Road. And now, we’ve carried it here, to the Beth Sholom Campus.

All these many years, we’ve told new stories

and composed new sacred music.

We’ve learned and prayed and pursued justice together.

We’ve celebrated and mourned with each other,

supported and loved one another.

 

One generation passed the torch to the next,

as rabbis, cantors, and educators changed,

as preschoolers became b’nai mitzvah,

as students became teachers,

and children became parents,

and parents became grandparents,

all in the blink of an eye.

 

Some of our elders died,

and we kept the flame of their memories alive.

New generations of children came to be,

the fire already burning in their eyes.

New people came to join us, bringing their sparks with them.

Sometimes a child would grow up and make their home far away from us,

or a couple in midlife would set off on a new adventure.

They weren’t always able to return to this place,

but they carried their sparks with them,

and lit new fires wherever they went.

 

We moved from forest to forest to forest.

There were years when we couldn’t gather at all,

But we kept the fire burning in our homes and our hearts.

 

Throughout that time: We kept singing songs, some old and some new,

Our people still gathered for study and prayer,

to take care of each other,

and to confront the challenges of the world we live in.

We told our favorite stories and thought of new ones,

(sometimes around the tissue-paper campfire in Mr. Beatus’s classroom)

We taught our children the language of prayer,

how to be strong and wise and kind,

and bring healing to our broken world.

We passed our traditions into their waiting hands,

and instantly, the flames grew brighter.

 

Sometimes, when we looked to the future,

it was difficult to see past the darkness on the horizon.

But as long as we trusted the light of the flames to guide us,

Our hope stayed in the world.

The Holy Blessed One would rejoice,

and so would we.

 

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz