When Ahiya asked the Besht whether he was greater than Abraham, he was querying whether the Besht deserved honor befitting our forefather.
Shivhei Habesht (In Praise of the Besht) is the earliest collection of stories about Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (Besht, ca. 1700-1760). The work includes some 250 hagiographic tales and was first published some 54 years after the hero’s death. This time lapse, understandably, calls into question the historicity of Shivhei Habesht, or at least the veracity of the details depicted. Nevertheless, the work became a staple of the later hassidic milieu and largely reflects the hassidic narrative of the Besht, and is therefore a significant – if not historical – composition.
One tale relates how the Besht traveled to the city of Brody. The night before he reached Brody, he stayed in a nearby inn but was so frightened he could not sleep. During the night, his fear was so great that his knees knocked against each other and his scribe, Rabbi Zvi, was awakened by the noise.
“Why are you afraid?” asked the scribe.
The Besht explained that his rabbi – according to hassidic tradition, the prophet Ahiya the Shilonite – had come to him and asked: “Who is more worthy – you or Abraham our father, may he rest in peace?” Puzzled, he Besht asked: “What is the point of such a question?” Ahiya continued cryptically: “You will go to the holy community of Brody and they will honor you greatly. If, Heaven forfend, you are not strong, you will lose all that which you have heretofore attained.”
The Besht explained that this warning was what had made him tremble so.
When the Besht arrived in Brody, the wealthy people of the community, dressed in their finest garments, came out to welcome him.
The Besht’s response was surprising: He began to play with the horses, stroking them and patting them. He acted like a wagondriver, that is, someone familiar with horses but rarely learned and generally of a lowly status in the community.
The Shivhei Habesht narrator concluded the tale by noting: “Now you know the extent of the Besht’s fear of sin.”
The tale tells of fear of sin, but neglects to relate which potent sin so scared the Besht. What was the iniquity that could cause the Besht to lose all his spiritual achievements? And how are we to understand Ahiya’s comparison between the Besht and Abraham? The answer may lie in a later source that recounts the Besht’s response to a similar circumstance.
Rabbi Ya’acov Ketina (d. 1890), a hassidic rabbi in the town of Huszt – then in Hungary and today in Ukraine – authored a short work entitled Rahamei Ha’av (The Mercies of the Father), dealing with character refinement. Under the heading “Kavod” (honor) he related the following.
The Besht once arrived in a certain place and was accorded great honor. The Besht told his hosts: “Know that when we honor somebody, that person’s deeds are examined in Heaven to see whether indeed the person is worthy of that honor. Thus we are, in fact, doing a disservice by honoring someone; for who needs to be scrutinized by the Heavenly Court? “In truth, however, a person who has been granted a wise heart by the Almighty, as soon as that person is honored, he or she immediately considers repentance, examining deeds and reconsidering wayward conduct. In that circumstance we do such a person a favor when we accord honor, for that honor precipitates repentance.”
Returning to the first tale: the Besht, it appears, feared the honor that he was to be accorded in Brody, lest such heaping amounts of honor trigger an examination of the Besht’s conduct. When Ahiya asked the Besht whether he was greater than Abraham, he was querying whether the Besht deserved honor befitting our forefather Abraham. Indeed, the Besht was so aware of the pitfalls of honor and wary of the sin of pride that he sought to counter the perception in Brody by acting as a wagon-driver.