What Is Worth Knowing?
In the early years of the 18th century, a great teacher, a Hassidic Master, lived in a small village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe. The Baal Shem Tov as he was known, the Master of the Good Name, was no ordinary teacher. The simplest of men, free from any affectation and ornament, he had the remarkable facility to invest everything—even the most difficult of circumstances—with holiness. His fervent longing for God, his conscious dedication to God’s will, his ability to make facts subservient to faith stirred the souls of his countrymen and gave them hope in an age of gathering sorrow. So great was his capacity to love that every man, woman, and child who met him felt he had come into the world for them alone.
Despite his earnest efforts, given the peril of the times, the horror and devastation of the pogroms, the day did come when the Baal had no other course left to him but to go before God, his loyal scribe in tow, and ask the One Beyond All Quality and Thought for protection for his people.
“Ground and Garden of my delight,” he says to God, “We need You.”
God was not the only one listening to the Baal’s plea that day. Knowing as he did the mediating power of the Almighty’s favor, that the even least vestige of Divine intervention could end his reign of terror, the Prince of Darkness seizes the moment God turns His mind to deliberate the Baal’s request and banishes the rebbe and his scribe to the ends of the earth, then takes from them the memory of everything they have ever loved.
The scribe begins to wail; the Baal remains undeterred. “Hush now, man,” he says to the scribe! “Calm yourself! Think! There must be something you recall, something I said, some splinter or speck of Truth I trusted to your pen that can rescind this curse?”
At long last, at the very edge of his possibilities, the scribe remembers the Alef, Bet, Gimel, the first three letters of the Hebrew alphabet. He whispers the letters to the Baal, the Master speaks them aloud, and the presence of God, the Light in all things—even in a letter of the alphabet—restores the Baal’s heart to its fundamental righteousness. In the face of such Beauty, the curse loses its power; the two men transcend the material laws of time and space and are transported back to their village.
In this way the people learn that the devekut, the awareness of God in all things, lifts them above any darkness, above any loss or limitation, above any challenge or change—even the story they whisper only to themselves in the dark of night about what they fear they will never be able to do.
I cannot say for certain when or how I first came to know and love this story, only that each time I retell it, it affirms for me two things: the undreamed-of possibilities that come from cultivating a personal relationship with the everywhere present God, and the power of storytelling—story’s ability to be a vehicle for revelation and transformation.
The Baal Shem Tov (1700-1760) was an actual person, the founder of Hasidism, a then new movement that recognized the need to create new patterns of Jewish life that emphasized transcendent prayer and experience, the holiness of everyday daily life, and storytelling. The combo really appeals to me.
Like the devekut, stories are alchemical. They both create universes of connection and hope: the storyteller—like the devotee—declares what is most dear or clear to them, and the listener—like faith in the God of your heart—finds a way in to an unwrapped challenge or unexpected uncertainty.
Yes, stories chronicle what’s happened in our lives, but they also expand our possibilities. They help us see a thing with new eyes. They help us feel the sub-atomic resonance we have with our soul, with others, with all Life. We discover how we belong, how everything fits.
No longer the purview of writers and dinner table conversations, storytelling is fast becoming a tool for individual entrepreneurs, corporates, and nonprofits to declare what is important to them. These stories build credibility and interdependence; they open doors to new clients and customers; they lay the foundation for policy and institutional change within the company; they deepen employee communication and even improve the bottom line.
If we can’t talk about what we value or what needs to change within us—personally and organizationally—in a way others can understand and feel passionate about, if we can’t tell the story of what we want to do and why, and what it takes to make change happen, we will never get our dreams off the ground.
If you have a story to tell, tell it. Someone is waiting in the wings to hear it.
If you need help doing this—be it a story that is dear to you, that just might help others find their way, that launches a new professional venture—give me a jingle at Margaret@Cominghomestories.com. It’s time to storm the gates.
Margaret Wolff is a writer, storyteller, art therapist, and retreat leader. Her work celebrates the ways in which the collective wisdom and storytelling reveal the truth and beauty of our inner lives and connect us—heart to beating heart—to each other.
COMING HOME: Finding Shelter in the Love and Wisdom of Paramahansa Yogananda (White Pearl Press, May 20201), is a curated collection of 14 modern-day stories of spiritual awakening that reflect “the most creative and transformative experience life can offer—developing an intimate partnership with the invisible God of one’s heart.”
Available wherever fine books are sold.