It was the custom of the Baal Shem Tov to always go for a ride in his carriage, with some close disciples, after the close of each Sabbath. In the centuries since then, the teachings communicated by the Baal Shem, during those carriage rides, have been passed on to thousands of his followers and students in each generation.
Although the Baal Shem employed a driver, it was his habit to direct the horses, using only the power of his will. Though his driver, Alexi, would often fall asleep and drop the reins, the horses would never stray from the course desired by the Baal Shem.
To many people, even observant people, the Sabbath is just another day, just like all other days, except there is less work, and more rest or play. That kind of simple understanding is better than nothing, but the Baal Shem Tov was a master of using the prayers and meditations of the Sabbath to reach into the deepest depths of his soul, and up to some of the highest rungs of heaven ever fathomed by human beings. So by the end of each Sabbath, the Baal Shem was always in a very high and prodigious state of mind. Thus it was, that his closest disciples always hungered for the opportunity to study with him, on his post-Sabbath carriage rides.
On one particular occasion, as Alexi was thus engaged in napping at the reins, the horses strayed down an unknown road. At length, the sleeping driver was awakened by the chill of the night. He found himself unable to control the horses, which were now racing full speed down the darkened road. He quickly became alarmed, and aroused the Baal Shem Tov, who had been studying intensely in the carriage, with three of his disciples, known as the three Davids: David Firkes, David Leikes, and David of Mikolayev. Finding that the horses would not respond to the tug of his will, the Baal Shem seized the reins with his hands, and struggled vainly for a time, trying to control the wayward beasts.
As the dawn approached, the five riders abandoned all hope of controlling their destiny. They found themselves racing across a vast wasteland, in a country unknown to any of them. For three days, the horses continued their speed, nourished and directed, it seemed, by an unseen force. On the fourth day, as the sun arose, they found that they had entered a thicket; and as the day wore on, they became more and more entangled. At last, in the heart of a darkened forest, the horses could not take another step in any direction. Here the dank vegetation engulfing them was so thick and tangled that the light of the sun was totally hidden. They were completely enveloped in darkness, and could in no way tell if it was day or night.
After the passage of three unmarked days, the Baal Shem announced to his companions that another Sabbath was soon approaching. Upon announcing this, he fell asleep; and after several hours sleeping, he awoke and pointed to a hitherto unobserved ray of light, emanating from one side of the thicket. The companions found themselves able to slowly make their way through the thicket, towards the light. After struggling for some time, they found themselves at last, on the edge of a small clearing. In the center of this space, they saw what appeared to be a small and dingy gray house. As one would expect, they were all overjoyed at finding a human habitation, where they might rest themselves, and make a proper observance of the coming Sabbath. Then, as they approached the house, they encountered a huge burly man, with muddy bare feet, and torn dirty clothes.
As they came up to the unkempt man, they greeted him, and asked if they might remain as his guests for a day, and observe the Sabbath with him. He fairly flew into a rage, shouting and grunting at them. He could tell just by looking, he said, that they were Hassidim; "...fools whose custom is to shout prayers vulgarly, each one trying to outdo the other," he accused. "You Hassidim make a mockery of your devotions," he raved. "You wail and moan in your false piety, and put a decent man to shame. In no way will I allow my Sabbath to be disturbed by the disgusting likes of your kind." Then picking up a large staff in his calloused hand, he bade them quickly remove themselves from his sight. As they turned to leave, one of them inquired of him how far it would be to the nearest home, where they might be welcome to observe the Sabbath. "As long as it took you to reach this place, and more will it be, before you find another human's house," he retorted.
At the prospect of having no place to observe the Sabbath, the youngest of the companions, David Firkes, took courage and eloquently asked "Since the holy Sabbath is both your refuge and ours, our paths are bound to cross within it somewhere. Surely, it cannot be that you would rather dishonor the Sabbath of the future, by casting us out into the wilderness, than bear whatever small unpleasantries that hosting the likes of us would bring you." At this, the uncouth man grunted and muttered "So be it. But I warn you, I will tolerate none of your nonsense. The next world is built from the Sabbaths of this one, so I'll not have you spoiling even the smallest part of my Sabbath. In my place, my word and wish will be the law."
"I know you Hassidim wait and prepare an interminable time," he continued, "before your hearts are ready for prayer. Here it will not be thus. I have worked long and hard today, and my hunger is great. We will say quickly what prayers are to be said, and then proceed to the meal. I know your custom is to walk about and rave, during your annoying heartfelt prayers, crying and shouting your joys and miseries to heaven. Here, in my house, there is no place for your ridiculous ecstasies; your prayers will be short and quiet, as are mine. I warn you, if my customs are offended, in the smallest detail, your Sabbath will be concluded back in the darkness of the thicket." With this, he laughed a long menacing laugh, and motioned them to cross his grimy threshold.
The rude man then directed the companions to make places for themselves on the dirt floor. As fatigued as they were from the rigors of the past week, it was difficult to rest, in what was by far the crudest and dirtiest abode they had ever encountered. There were other doors leading out of the room; but from the dust and cobwebs on them, it seemed certain to the companions that this one room was the only inhabited part of the house. Yet, here was not even a mat or rags for sleeping on. There were no chairs or real table in the room, but only a set of stakes driven into the dirt, upon which a rough-hewn plank had been laid.
Rather than rest, the Hassids could only fret that here they might find no observation of Sabbath whatsoever, but only desecration. Yet as the time approached, their host, who had been humming peasant songs to himself, and whittling away a block of wood, produced an old scrap of coarse linen, which he laid atop the plank table. On this, he rudely slammed a lump of clay, and then proceeded to set half of an old wax candle in it.
As he lit the candle, he mumbled the age-old prayer; mispronouncing the words and swallowing the sounds, as if there were no meaning in them whatsoever. As he finished, the companions called out "Good Sabbath!" to him and to each other. His only response to this greeting was walking to the door and spitting with obvious disgust. They then began to sing a traditional song for welcoming the Sabbath, and he flew at them instantly, threatening to eject them at another such outburst.
The Hassids' host refused them the privilege of saying the blessing over the wine. "There's not enough light left in the candle," he growled, "to see the end of your unbearably emotional devotions. I'll say the prayers myself, so we'll be finished while there's still light left." In a moment, his mumbling was done, and then drinking all but a few drops of the wine himself, he handed the nearly-empty cup to the Baal Shem and his companions. He did this, scowling at them, and urging them to restrain themselves, and not become drunk in his house, however humble it might appear.
Next, he produced a coarse, moldy loaf of peasant bread; mumbled over it, and tore off a large chunk for himself. A short time later, when one of the companions reached for a second piece of bread, he jumped to his feet and pounded on the table insisting that "One piece will be quite enough for Hassidim, who'll do no leaping and howling, tonight nor tomorrow."
Their host's main course for the evening was a large tureen of thin lentil broth, which he dropped clumsily onto the center of the table, cracking the tureen halfway down, and spilling out a good deal of the soup. He turned quickly towards the Baal Shem, with an intense menacing glare, as though somehow the Baal Shem could be responsible for this accident. Then, he turned to the others, and with a glowering voice, invited one and all to join in with their spoons. As he was speaking these words, however, he leaned his huge head over the broken bowl. The ends of his grimy hair dipped into the soup, as he slurped it greedily; and it ran from the corners of his mouth back into the tureen.
The poor companions could not bring themselves to eat more than a spoonful apiece. And as bad as this evening was, the, next morning brought even worse, from their uncouth host. It was as if he were somehow wrapping ever-tightening bands of iron around the unfortunate companions, constricting their joy, their actions, expressions, and thoughts to the starkest minimum.
On the morning following the Sabbath, the companions arose from the dirt with renewed vigor, anticipating an early departure. They found, however, that the crude man had locked their horses in his barn. He invited them, for whatever reason, but in no uncertain terms, to remain with him for three more days, "for the three days your uncontrolled beasts pulled you in the wilderness without direction." So the Baal Shem and his companions remained; and after these three additional days, they begged the burly man for their release. He answered them, saying "Today I will open the door for you." At his sinister tone, the companions feared for their lives, for they supposed that he referred to opening the door to the next world.
Then only a short while later, their host arose and left the room. And moments after this, one of the dusty unused doors leading to the rest of the house slowly opened; revealing a beautiful and well-dressed woman standing there, whom they all perceived to be the lady of the house. Behind her, they could see a beautifully furnished room, with soft couches, a fireplace, and an enormous library. "Holy friends," she addressed them, "remain here as our guests, even three more days, for the three days your entangled horses were bound motionless in the dark thicket. Then spend with us another Sabbath, and my husband will lead you to a road on the day following."
The companions' wonderment soon abated, and they loudly protested to her, for their treatment during the previous four days. "Do you recognize me?" she asked. None could recall her identity. Then to the Baal Shem Tov she said "Master, my early instruction was at your hand, and for that I shall always owe you many thanks. I was orphaned as a child, and was employed in your household, as a kitchen maid. I was a clumsy child...