KESER SHEM TOV
Anthology of the Teachings of the Baal Shem Tov
The Baal Shem Tov taught:
The purpose of light-hearted conversation before Torah study is because human consciousness vacillates between a constricted state of mind, called “katnut [immature] ha’mochin,” and an expanded state of mind, called “gadlut [mature] ha’mochin.” These different states of mind are alluded to in the verse, “The chayot/angels run to and fro.”1 In order to rise from a constricted state of “immaturity” to an expanded state of “maturity,” one can make use of light-hearted jesting, thus opening his mind to learning and coming closer to G-d.2
Hence, the Talmud3 tells of two saintly men who would jest with people in order to alleviate their suffering, after which there was coming together of hearts, and they were able to elevate them.4
This is also alluded to in the verse, “[Abraham] took his two youths with him, and his son, Isaac,” for by using jest5with holy intentions, one is able to elevate the years6 of one’s youth7 with him as well.
1Ezekiel 1:14. This means that the angels are in constant fluctuation between proximity to, and distance from G-d, and this is mirrored in the fluctuation of human consciousness, as said here. The need for this fluctuation is so that the created being be able to maintain its sense of existence as seemingly separate from G-d, for if it were to come to the absolute realization and experience that it in reality, it is non-existent outside of G-d, it would indeed lose this seemingly “independent” existence and be swallowed by the Divine Existence. This spiritual phenomenon is mirrored in the waning and waxing in the physical world, as is evident from the moon’s cycles, the waves of the ocean, and all the inherent cycles that we find at all levels in the natural world.
2Rebbe Nachman speaks profusely about how joy opens the mind and frees it of the bonds and constrictions of the normal states of consciousness, proclaiming, “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy!” (LM I 89; 222; 282; II 10; 24). Indeed, modern research has verified that a happy state of mind has very positive effects on the brain and hence on the entire body. But the point made here is to use this positive and expansive state of body/mind to come closer to G-d. On a deeper level, this very state of being is itself a proximity to G-d, as is for that matter any type of pleasure, since it is G-d’s intention to provide us with pleasure, and all pleasures are in fact a constriction of Himself, so to speak, the Source of all pleasures.
3Tractate Ta’anit 22a.
4Toldoth Yaakov Yoseph.
5As known, Isaac’s name comes from the root of laughing, and indeed, his mother Sarah gave him this name with that intention – “Whoever hears [that I gave birth at such an advanced age] will laugh” (Genesis 12:6).
6The Hebrew word for two can also mean years.
7“Youth” here refers to one’s immature consciousness.
Translation and commentary by Rabbi Yehoshua Starrett.
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