It was at a time when he had not yet emerged publicly as the leader of the Chassidic movement. The Baal Shem Tov (1700- May 1760) still wore the cloak of anonymity as he traveled through the towns and villages of the Carpathians (1500 km mountain range – Central Europe). It was one of his holy practices to ask every Jew he met – man and woman, the aged and the children – how they were, how business was, and so on. One of his greatest pleasures was to listen to the answers that each of them would give – answers that came from the heart. They would reply with words of praise and thanks to God. Every answer would contain something like, my business is well, “Thank God,” or my family is well, “The Lord be blessed.”
Give God His Livelihood
Once he reached a small township and began in his normal way to inquire after the welfare of the Jews he met, to listen to them say words of praise and gratitude to God, as a demonstration of their faith. In the town there was a very old man, a great scholar, who lived in isolation from the affairs of the world. For more than fifty years he had sat and studied Torah day and night, detached and holy. He would sit and learn every day, wrapped in his tallit and tefillin until the afternoon service, and would not eat anything all day, until he had said the evening prayers, when he would have a little bread and water. When the Baal Shem Tov entered his study, a room in one of the corners of the synagogue, he asked the old man about his health and his welfare, but the man did not look up at the Baal Shem Tov, who was dressed in the clothes of a peasant. He repeated his question several times, until the sage became angry and gestured that he should leave the room.
The Baal Shem Tov said: “Rabbi, why (as it were) do you not give God His livelihood?” When he heard this, the old man was completely confused. A peasant was standing in front of him and talking about God and the need to provide God with a living! The Baal Shem Tov read his thoughts and said, “The Jewish people is sustained by the livelihood which God provides for them. But what sustains God that He may continue, as it were, to ‘inhabit’ the world? In other words, we certainly have an awareness of the heavens and the earth. We typically think of God in the heavens and we are on earth. But we know at the same time that God is part of our world, too. What is it that sustains God both in heaven and on earth?”
The Baal Shem Tov went on to explain to this rabbi that King David had this intention when he wrote in Psalm 22, “You are Holy, You who are enthroned (inhabit) upon the praises of Israel” (22:4). This is an unusual verse, because in Psalm 18 we understand that God is “enthroned” on the cherubim, the angels who support God’s throne. Here, King David suggest that “our praises,” along with the angels, support the throne. And yet, the Baal Shem Tov is taking our verse in the opposite direction as well. God is not only sustained on the throne by our praises, but God’s very holiness is sustained by our praises. Our praises sustain the throne in heaven; however, at the same time, they represent God’s inhabitation/presence on earth as well.
This great Chasidic master is teaching this rabbi that just as we praise God when we recite the Shehecheyanu, as we express our appreciation for God “giving us life, sustaining us, and bringing us to this moment,” this is establishing God’s livelihood in being able to be on earth – not in heaven – to do this for us. Our recognition, our praise, allows God to be able to “inhabit” our world through “the praises of Israel.” God is sustained by the praise and the gratitude to which the Jews give voice, for their health and their sustenance with which God provides them.
Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov’s insight is not easy to understand. It is true that the God of whom we say “You are Holy” (that is, transcending the world) is brought to “inhabit” the world only by the service of the Jewish people. But surely learning Torah is part of that service? Surely it brings the presence of God into the world? And the old sage had learned Torah day and night for more than fifty years. Even at the very moment when the Baal Shem Tov spoke to him, he was preoccupied with study! How, then, could he have said: “Why (as it were) do you not give God His livelihood?” And even if it is the “praises of Israel” and not the sound of their studies that causes God to “inhabit” the world, the Baal Shem Tov could surely have tried to elicit words of thanksgiving from the sage for being allowed by God to study in serenity and seclusion. Why did he need to ask him about matters of physical concern, like his health?
The answer is that the whole purpose of creation was to make for God a “dwelling-place in the lower world.” This world was to be transformed into a habitation for God. That is the spirit is connected to the material. We are not to depart from the material to become spiritual alone! How is this dwelling-place built? Not, primarily, through learning or through thanks to God for the opportunity to learn. Study involves the “Godly soul” of the Jew, the highest part of his nature. But thanksgiving for food, for money, for health – these involve a sanctification of the body, of natural desires and physical needs. We are able to ennoble our material lives and world. We are able to raise the mundane experience of eating, breathing, sustaining, and living to a higher level.
Take hiking as an example – a simple exercise program for health and longevity. How about in the company of a good friend, meaningful conversation, learning, and teaching – now the material hike for health is raised to include that as well as a spiritual dimension.
How about eating? Certainly, we can eat to sustain our body and energy level; however, when we recite the blessing over food, thanking God for this nourishment, nourishment to empower us to “lift up the fallen” and “clothe the naked”, then God inhabits our world in a special way.
When a Jew recognizes even these as the gift of God, then he has truly admitted God into the “lower world”. That raises the lower world to a higher level of understanding. That is why, when the Baal Shem Tov saw the sage, sitting in seclusion, disengaged from the world, unconcerned with the state of his body, eating only to survive, not to sanctify the physical, he asked, “Why (as it were) do you not give God His livelihood?” Living on a spiritual plane is not of greater value than living in this material worldly plane. These two worlds reside together. They support and sustain each other.
In light of this story, we can see why the most precious fruit or food we are about to consume, which is not in itself “holy”, depends on the blessing of God. After services, as we recite the blessings, the praise of God, if you will, for the wine and the desert, we are in the midst of the joining of the spiritual and the material. When we offer praises for these things, then we bring the “You,” the essence of God, which is “holy” and beyond all finitude, to “inhabit” the world as God’s dwelling-place, thus bringing the entire creation to its true fulfillment. So let us remember to give God His livelihood in this world – thank God!