Two weeks before Rosh Hashana in 1734, when he turned 36, Reb Yisrael, the Baal Shem Tov, was revealed as a holy man and the leader of the Chassidic movement.
Before that, he devoted effort to keep his special qualities well hidden from the public eye. He dressed, spoke and carried himself like a simple uneducated poor Jew in the Ukraine. To support himself he worked as a plain laborer. His intense prayers, his meditation, his deep Torah study were all carried out in secret. In conversation with other Jews he would often encourage them with teachings and stories from the Midrash and Talmud that stressed the value of serving G-d wholeheartedly and developing good character traits, such as a love for a fellow Jew. He strove to nourish in them a love for G-d, for Torah, and for the entire Jewish people. But when he did so it was always in the language and idiom of the common people. No one suspected him of being more than he appeared. Only his wife and circle of hidden tzadikim knew who he really was.
Sometimes he would be forced to utilize his extraordinary G-dly powers to save Jews or even a whole community from distress. Whenever he did so, as soon as the time of need ended, he would immediately move to a new and distant location where nobody knew him.
One of these occasions took place on Lag B’Omer!
In those days, Jewish communities were often subject to attack by wild bands of violent Cossacks, and other such coarse anti-Semites. Once the town that the Baal Shem Tov was living in received word that such a gang of evil men was headed their way. The entire Jewish community decided to abandon their homes and hide in the hills for a few days, until the invading Cossacks would calm down and leave. The Baal Shem Tov accompanied them. The people took refuge in the numerous caves that dotted the terrain.
From their lookout they could see that the Cossack horde had arrived. Unable to find any Jews to physically assault, they vented their anger on Jewish property. They broke into the warehouse of wine, drank themselves into a state of crazed drunkenness, smashed the rest of the barrels, and continued their rampage. The watching Jews all trembled in fear that the cruel Cossacks would search the hills and their hiding places would be discovered.
A few days went by. The invaders stacked piles of plunder that they gathered from Jewish homes and stores. The Jews were still terrified of discovery. How startled they were to see that their friend Yisroelik was assembling groups of children outside of the caves, in broad daylight! They protested, whereupon the Baal Shem Tov explained to them that it was the holy day of Lag B’Omer, a day to be outside in the fields, joyously celebrating the day of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He assured them that not only would they not be endangered, but that the merit of their Lag B’Omer observance would help to protect and rescue the entire community. Somehow his enthusiasm and conviction affected the nervous parents, and they gave their permission for their children to join him. The Baal Shem Tov went from cave to cave, and gathered nearly all the children.
The Baal Shem Tov lead the children in a parade, marching along and singing happily. At first the children sang quietly but soon their voices rose following the lead of their cheerful leader singing in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The parents gazed after their children with nervous affection, but their attention soon turned to the Baal Shem Tov. It was as if he was a different person than the simple Yisroelik they knew. His face flamed with rapture as he sang. All his movements reflected ecstasy in the Divine as he danced with the circle of children. The simple Yisroelik had been transformed in front of their eyes to the holiest of men. His voice combined with those of the pure innocent children to produce Heavenly singing as if the angels in Heaven were singing a\long.
The parade and the singing continued for a long time. Afterwards, the Baal Shem Tov led he children to a small plateau, sat them on the grass, and distributed to each of them the food treats that he had prepared. He made sure that each child pronounced loudly the correct blessing for the food. After they had eaten, he told them riveting stories from the Talmud and the Midrash about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and about Rabbi Akiva, his pupil. The children listened with rapt attention. They felt the powerful love the Baal Shem Tov had for each of them and they responded to him with great affection.
The parents watched riveted by the attention the Baal Shem Tov was giving their children and the children’s total concentration on every word the Baal Shem Tov uttered.
They whispered prayers that all should end well and that everyone would be safe.
S uddenly someone looking out at what was happening in town, saw that the Cossacks gang rose up and rushed away from the village. They ran away with all their might as if being chased by an enemy. They left so suddenly and didn’t stop to take anything with them, abandoning all of their piles of plunder.
At first the Jews were worried that the crazed invaders would come searching for them again. But they saw that they were leaving the town until not even one of them was left. Thank G-d, the danger was over. The Jews returned to their village, and slowly life returned to normal.
Soon, they were able to clarify what happened. Somehow the Cossacks heard or thought they heard that a troop of government soldiers was rapidly approaching in their direction. Frightened, they fled for their lives, abandoning everything that they had plundered from the Jews.
The Jews, who returned to their homes, were truly amazed by the miracle that had taken place for them. They knew without a doubt that the miracle occurred in the merit of the joyous celebration of their children with the hidden mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, in honor of the great sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on his special day of joy, Lag B’Omer!
But by then, the Baal Shem Tov was not around, for he had already moved on to his next mission.