Prayer is the concept of binding these two things together. Maybe that’s the reason why the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, loved to pray in the fields and the woods. He didn’t like confining walls; he liked to be out in the open where he could be bound to our ever-present Creator.
Consider this story of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Yaacov:
And then there was the time that a simple Jewish man, called Reb Yakov, had a life-altering encounter with the Baal Shem Tov.
Reb Yaakov lived in a little village deep in the Carpathian Mountains. Although he was extremely poor and hardly a scholar, Yakov had strong faith in G·d and was happy with his lot in life.
One morning, Yakov was praying in the tiny synagogue of his village. The Minyan had already finished their prayers and had left for work. On this day, Reb Yaakov felt a warm glow fill his heart, as he slowly and softly recited the prayers in the Siddur.
Coincidently, just at that time, Rabbi Yisrael - the Holy Baal Shem Tov - happened to be walking in the countryside and passed the village. Being a mystic, the Baal Shem Tov saw a brilliant, G·dly light streaming out from the window of the tiny village synagogue.
"My L·rd, what is going on in there?" Rabbi Yisrael thought to himself.
He quickly walked over to the Shule and looked in the window. There, he saw what appeared to be a simple Jewish man holding a Siddur and praying. The man, of course, was wearing his Tallis and Tefillin. Rabbi Yisrael went in, sat down, and immersed himself in the study of a Holy Sefer, while he waited for the man to finish his prayers.
Hours passed. It was already early afternoon when Yakov was finally done and removed his Tallis and Tefillin.
"Shalom Aleichem, Aleichem Shalom," they greeted each other.
After speaking briefly, Rabbi Yisrael asked, "Tell me Reb Yakov, why were you praying so long?"
"Rabbi," he answered in a hushed tone. "I don't really know the meaning of the Hebrew words in the Siddur or even the right prayers to say. Usually I just start reading at the beginning of the Siddur and stop when the rest of the minyan finishes. But today, I felt particularly inspired so I didn't stop until I reached the end of the Siddur."
"Reb Yakov, my friend," said Rabbi Yisrael. "Would you like me to teach you which prayers to say, and when to say them?"
"Oh Rabbi! I can't tell you how much that would mean to me. I've always wanted to know which is the right prayer to say. But I don't want to be a bother to you," replied the unassuming Yakov.
"Oh Reb Yakov, it wouldn't be a bother at all," responded the Baal Shem Tov. "In fact, I would be honored to teach you the prayers."
And so the two of them sat together for several hours, while the Baal Shem Tov taught Yakov about the many prayers in the Siddur. They started with the morning blessings, the Shachris prayers and the prayers said before and after eating. Then the Baal Shem Tov showed Yakov the Minchah and Maariv prayers. They moved on to Shabbos and Yom Tov prayers. Rabbi Yisrael marked the separations between the prayers by placing small pieces of paper in the Siddur, with notes written on them to remind Yakov about each of the prayers.
When he completed explaining the entire Siddur, the Baal Shem Tov bid farewell and left. He walked at his usual fast pace down the road leading away from the little village.
Yakov was thrilled. He danced and danced around in circles while hugging his prayer book. Suddenly, he accidentally dropped the Siddur. The pieces of paper with the notes on them were scattered across the floor.
He stood, bewildered and dismayed. "What am I going to do?" he cried out. On one hand, he had always wanted to know the proper prayers and when to say them. On the other hand, he felt extremely embarrassed at the thought of asking Rabbi Yisrael to put the papers back in their proper places.
Finally, he decided. He gathered up the pieces of paper, and clutching his Siddur, started walking as fast as he could down the road after the Rabbi.
He could not see the Baal Shem Tov for quite some time. Then, Yakov reached the top of a hill from which he could just barely make out the Rabbi, far off in the distance. "Whew!" he sighed in relief and started walking even faster. Just then, the Baal Shem Tov disappeared into a forest.
Yakov followed him through the forest and suddenly found himself standing on a cliff, high above a wide, raging river. And there, by the side of the river stood the Baal Shem Tov. "Thank G·d," Yakov thought, "I've got him now."
Just as Yakov started walking down to the river, he saw the Baal Shem Tov remove his gartle (prayer belt wrapped around the waist). Then, the Baal Shem Tov stretched it out, and walked upon it across the raging river. As soon as he reached the other side, he put his gartle back on, and continued walking away without even a backwards glance.
When Yakov reached the edge of the river, he yelled out, "Rabbi! Rabbi!" But the roar of the river drowned out his voice. Without a second thought, Yakov took off his gartle, stretched it out, and walked upon it across the river. As soon as he reached the other side, he started running as fast as he could after the Baal Shem Tov.
"Rabbi! Rabbi! Wait for me!" he yelled.
The Baal Shem Tov turned around and was startled to see Yakov. "Reb Yakov, what are you doing here?"
Yakov held out the Siddur and the pieces of paper. "Rabbi, I'm so sorry. I dropped the Siddur and all the pieces of paper fell out."
"But what are you doing here?" asked the Baal Shem Tov.
"Rabbi, I've come to ask you to please put the pieces of paper back into the prayer book."
"But Reb Yakov, how did you get across the river?"
"Rabbi, I crossed on my gartle just as you did."
"You know," said the Baal Shem Tov, putting his arm around Reb Yakov, "you don't need my pieces of paper. The way that you've been praying is just fine."
And so it was.1
May you harmoniously balance order and intention in your moments of prayer and reach greater heights.
1. (original source) Freely adapted by Tzvi Meir HaCohane (Howard M. Cohn, Patent Attorney) from a story in SHIVCHEI HABESHT and translated in IN PRAISE OF THE BAAL SHEM TOV by Mintz and Ben Amos.