The Story of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Chaim the Drunk
The Belzer Rebbe tells this story of the Baal Shem Tov – the first of the famed Chassidic masters. This story is about one couple who comes to the Rebbe – the grand-rabbi, for a blessing. It was a serious need for this couple, something related to wanting to have a child, or an income to support them; something quite serious, according to the various versions.
As the Baal Shem Tov would do, the story says, he looked into the people standing before him. Their personal attributes and their potential, while pondering the issues facing them. The story says he turns to them and says that there is nothing that he can do. Sure, he’s known as the man of miracles. But this time it’s beyond him.
So as this couple turns to walk away, the Baal Shem Tov notices just how dejected and distraught the husband is. So the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, tells him, “Even though there is nothing I can’t do this for you, I know of someone who can. Go two towns over, and in the back of a tavern you will find him. His name is the holy Reb Chaim. He can do this for you.”
Now this man doesn’t say it, but he thinks that the Rebbe has really lost it this time. Sure, Chassidim are known for doing ecstatic and curious things in one’s joyous expression to G-d. As people say, they are not unknown to stand on their head if needed! But this is not just some rapturous mystical thing the Rebbe has asking of him, or some pious sacred task. He asks him to go to a tavern – which is hardly the place for a gentleman – and in an area which is two towns over, to meet some unknown guy. And all he knows about this man is his name is Chaim.
Well, the man would have done anything the Rebbe asked anyhow, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t understand, but the Rebbe asked him to and so he’s going to do it.
So the chassid makes his way two towns over, and he walks into the tavern. He looks around for a while. And the only thing he really finds is a wild drunkard in the back of the tavern.
In frustration the chassid eventually asks the attendant behind the bar, “Where can I find the holy Chaim?”
The bar tender turns to him and says, “The ‘holy’ Chaim? Don’t know him. The only Chaim we have here is the drunk in the back, spilling beer on everyone.” And he points to the drunkard, who is rambunctiously boozing and throwing his drink about. Barely able to stand, barely able to speak.
So this chassid goes up to Chaim and says, “Reb Chaim, the Baal Shem Tov has sent me. He says I need a bracha (blessing) from you!”
Chaim responds by turning over the tables as he tries to stand, throwing all the booze about. This man Chaim falls on his face. Both this man Chaim and the situation were a mess. The chassid turns to walk away, once again deflated. Wondering why the Rebbe would send him here, to this man. He wonders, was all this just a wild goose chase?
As he turns to walk away he grabs hold of another man and ask again. This fellow confirms, “Yes, this is certainly the holy Reb Chaim.”
To which the chassid replies in shock, “But he’s so drunk!”
However, the fellow reassured him. “Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”
So the chassid thinks it over, until he notices a big man hanging about. A huge guy, who looks like a bouncer. So he pays him off to subdue the drunken Chaim. They eventually strap Chaim to a chair and take to the task of sobering him up. They keep him away from alcohol. And for a day-and-a-half, they attend to this Chaim, feeding him bread and water.
After this much time passed he sobered up, and Reb Chaim become conscious. He then turns to the chassid and extends a blessing, “I give you a blessing of parnasa (income), I give you a blessing of children.” And the chassid goes on his way.
Now we are told this chassid did eventually receive his blessing just as it was told. Indeed, that very year the couple did conceive. And they raised their child well.
But having received his blessing, the chassid later returned to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov. And he asked the Rebbe, “Why is it that G-d placed such power in the hands of a drunkard?” He was very grateful for the blessings, but still confused by the experience.
The Rebbe turns to him and says, “Some people, if they recognized their light – if they truly recognize their strength – they would be too afraid of it.”
– – –
Before we end this story telling I want to say, this story speaks to me. As I believed it does to so many other people who have dealt with addiction, or love someone dealing with addiction.
For a moment I want us to consider how many people just look away though, how many people just walk away from it. They shake their heads and say, “This guy is so talented and has so much potential. How sad.” And that’s usually not just a polite observation. The truth is most addicts are very intelligent and talented people. They just don’t know what to do with all that pent-up potential. Or it’s so much more than they feel they can handle.
We are also taught by the chassidic masters:
“The biggest challenges are the blessings in our lives. What to do with the gifts, how to utilize them in service of G-d.”
The Kotzker Rebbe
This week’s lessons I very much want to dedicate to Daniel Ardel, my former-partner, for recently celebrating his second year of sobriety. I was so happy to celebrate with him once again, at Beit T’Shuvah. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the program for taking a chance on one of the most severe cases of drug addiction imaginable, and making room for the first Orange County case to be released from jail into their program.
Though this story is deeper than I can give you in such a short session, just know his story is intense. After coming out of the closet while in yeshiva (orthodox rabbinical academy) in Israel and facing so many conflicts inside himself, he later left religious life behind all together. And faced even more conflict in the spiritual void and cultural longing.
Together we later spent several years locked in addiction together, numbing ourselves for the same reasons. I broke free of addiction before him, and it was very hard watching his continued descent for many more years. Continuously asking him to seek out Beit T’Shuvah, the only program I heard of that I thought could help him face recovery on all levels. In jail the chaplain helped him get in contact, and they took him in. Today he is happy in recovery, seeking out spiritual thrills and busy as part of the program’s thrift store team!
One of the wonderful things about Beit T’Shuvah’s program is that they don’t just don’t detox people. They also deal with the soul and heart level issues. With a congregation that is certainly one of the most soulful shuls anywhere. As well as providing a variety of programs to engage a person and their talents. Art, music, drama, sports, social justice programs, urban farming, just to name a few. A program that works to help a person find their potential. And works with each person to be who they want to be. A wonderful program that people, Jewish or not, find inspiring.
Please support them and your local programs which provide support for those who suffer from addiction. There are people like ourselves, which need to also be liberated to face and actualize their potential.
- “How Do You Handle the Yeter HaRa (the Evil Impulse)?”
- Parshat Shemini (2012): “What the Torah Tells Us About Holding Your Drink”