The Paths of the Baal Shem Tov

Learning and Following the Travels to the Baal Shem Tov

The Wellsprings of Chassidus

Rabbi Yonasan C. Beitz

Moving with Teshuvah Thru Song


January 26, 2021

The Baal Shem Tov says that the chamber of Teshuvah is located next to the chamber of Nigunim. This means that the way to facilitate returning to Hashem is aided by the singing of a deep, longing, and heartfelt wordless tune known as a niggun.

It says in Chassidic writings that when one (G-d forbid) transgresses the will of Hashem, the word in Hebrew “aveirah” is used. The root of this is “aval” which means “to move across.” Similarly, Avraham was called an “Ivri” because he “moved from the side” of the nations, (who at that time were deeply involved in the worship of idols), to the side of Hashem. Abraham lived in the land of Caanan, “avar hanahar,” the other side of the river. This refers to the Jordan river and therefore all the land which is west of the river is included in the Holy Land of Israel.

One of the implications of this is that when there is a sin against Hashem, the Jew, G-d forbid, the Jew moves from the domain of holiness to the domain of impurity. In order to repent, the Jew needs to reverse the direction of his ways (“teshuv”) and to move from the domain of the impure and return himself to his rightful place, the domain of holiness.

There is a Mishnah that says that animals are led into a sheltered area by way of a nose ring. The nose ring is also used when they are led out to the outside, an external domain. The word for nose ring is “shir” which is the same word used for “song.” According to the Maggid of Mezritch the mystical interpretation of this Mishna is that the animals are likened to angels who also don’t have free choice. The angels elevate themselves in the morning prayers during the Blessing of Shema singing “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh…” The holy Ophanim and Chayot are transported from one lofty level to another through the medium of this song in praise of Hashem. Likewise, a person who cleaves to Hashem during their prayerful songs are led to a deeper awareness of the Divine Presence. When a person sings a heartfelt niggun, their entire being is moved towards a deeper and meaningful relationship with the Infinite One.

Practically speaking, to return (teshuvah) back to Hashem, behavior patterns and actions first need to be drastically changed. These come first because these are things we have more control over. It is not enough to say “I am repentant.” The minimum that we can do is to change a behavior pattern from profane to holy to begin this teshuvah process.

One’s heart and mind should also follow the change in actions to complete this process. It can be more challenging to alter one’s feelings and thoughts. This can be achieved primarily in two ways: 1) by thinking good thoughts which affect feelings and/or 2) by singing an elevated and refined niggun. The dramatic change, in moving from not good to good, requires an actual transfer within the wholistic person (thought, emotions, and action). In trying to make this alteration away from not good emotions, song and heartfelt prayer are needed daily.

Transferring an animal from the barn to the field takes patience. If we move the animal too fast and aggressively, it can bolt and become traumatized. In the same way, when trying to change emotions for the good, great care must be taken to proceed gently with a flexible, yet defined timeline. It is important to accept where we are emotionally and strive slowly to move forward.

When striving towards a good domain we have to be prepared for setbacks. These setbacks can also be used to propel us forward. Just like an ocean wave pattern that goes back to go forward, we can realize that our temporary return to “old feelings” can help us to realize that we don’t want to be there anymore. Like a surfer, we can surge forward on the crest of the wave.

Continuing this analogy, the surfer’s sensitivity to movement determines his balance on his wave. He knows where he is going and he knows where he came from, but he has to be concentrating on the present moment to remain stable on his surfboard. Just like the surfer’s awareness of his balance, so to the Baal Teshuvah must concentrate on the present moment while keeping in mind his past experiences and his yearning for his good future. The nature of sound is heard within the present moment. His song, while being heartfelt and yearning for Hashem, propels him forward towards a loftier level which becomes his newly found reality. The song has literally taken his past feelings and placed them into the present with its sound and connects him with his yearnings, his future. 

This teshuva process is now set in motion, whose depth and boundaries know no limits, as the heartfelt song of King David says, “ My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You, in a desolate and dry land without water, so I thirst to see You in the sanctuary to behold your might and glory.” (Psalms 63)