When the holy Israel Baal Shem Tov was five years old, his father became very sick. All the cures did not work, and he approached the hour of his death. He asked for his son Israel to be brought to him.
To Israel he spoke these parting words of instruction and love: “My son, remember that the dark side will always be with you. But know also that your essence is whole and pure. The dark side cannot violate your wholeness. You are part of God. Fear no man. Do not fear the dark side, for God is always with you, in you, and beyond you.” With those words Eliezer, father of Israel, died.
Israel’s mother had died soon after his birth, so he became an orphan. The people of the village raised him. Although he loved and lived the sacred texts of Kabbalah, he spent little time in the classroom. In fact, no one ever saw him poring over a text. Instead, they saw him wandering the fields and forests of the Carpathian Mountains. Israel spent most of his time outdoors, often lost in wonder, rapture, and radical amazement. He followed the ants, slept in the moss, and learned the language of birds. He listened. He heard the whispers of the winds, felt the flow of water, and swooned at the rapturous beauty of the forest. He communed in love with every creature. The ants and beetles were his friends, the small and larger animals his dearest companions.
When Israel was ten, he was retained as an apprentice to the headmaster and only teacher in the small school in Horodenka. He gathered the children from their homes and took them to school in the morning, and returned them to their parents in the afternoon. The children loved him, as did the parents, for their children would always return home radiant.
It was only the children and Israel, however, who knew the true source of their radiance. Israel took them to school in a very unexpected way. Instead of walking down the dirt roads and making the necessary turns, Israel took them across the fields and through the thick forests surrounding Horodenka. They sang with the squirrels and called out to the birds.
They sang songs of heart and joy to God, songs that Israel had composed and taught them. The chants as well as Israel’s pure intention opened their hearts and carried them to depths of ecstasy that cannot be described to one who has not experienced such joy.
Indeed, their songs were so filled with innocent love that they broke through boundaries that separate the realms of heaven from our earthly world. The songs attracted the attention of the angels, who began to sing with the children. Soon all the celestial palaces were filled with the pure songs of Israel and the children. Elijah, whose job it is to herald the coming of the messiah, was awakened by the song. Rumors swept through the heavens that the messianic era might soon be at hand.
Satan, lord of the dark side, was incensed by this unexpected turn of events. Satan demanded of God, as he had done in the days of Job, “Let me challenge this boy Israel!” God, for reasons we cannot know, agreed.
So Satan, who must always operate through agents, descended to earth to search for some representative of the dark side who could do his work. Satan called all the insects, searching for one who would poison Israel. But all the insects were Israel’s friends, and so none consented. Satan searched among all the animals large and small for one who would be willing to attack and dismember the boy in front of the children he led. He was sure that such a sight would put an end to their singing. But all the animals refused, for they too were Israel’s beloved companions. Satan was unable to find a single living being who would consent to harming the boy.
Finally, Satan was able to locate an agent. He was a very old man who worked as a charcoal burner. In truth, he was not really an old man, although this is how he appeared. He was of that very rare kind who was born without a soul. His body functioned normally, but he was disconnected from all emotion and from any sense of right and wrong. He could not bear the company of human beings. When his mother bore him, she abandoned him in the woods, for he frightened her. She somehow knew that he was more animal than human, and would be better raised by the creatures of the forest. He was nursed by a she-bear. He survived by eating insects. But he had a human intelligence of sorts, and so in the fullness of time he learned to make fire and charcoal. People who needed charcoal would leave him food and drink, and he would make them charcoal. He never spoke to a human being, and when he was occasionally sighted, it sent tremors through the one who beheld him.
Even before this set of events with Israel and the children, Satan had set his eyes on the charcoal burner. He sent a demonic power to enter his body. On nights where the full moon was high in the sky, the charcoal burner would grow fur, and then, possessed by a demonic power living through him, he would stand on all fours spitting fire and screeching at the moon. People spoke of a strange monster prowling the woods, but they were always too filled with fear to truly investigate the truth.
After being refused by all living creatures, Satan turned to find the char- coal burner, knowing that his will was too weak to resist Satan’s demand. Satan came upon the charcoal burner as he slept. He reached into his body and removed his heart. Satan then ripped out a piece of his own heart, the heart of darkness, and placed this blackest of all hearts within the empty chest cavity of the charcoal burner.
The very next morning, Israel was leading the children, as he always did, through the forest. They were singing with their hearts open and pure, and their faces radiant. The angels sang with them, as they had grown accustomed to doing.
As the children entered a meadow in a section between two expanses of forest, they heard a ghastly sound behind them. A huge, dark, and shadowy creature stepped out from the forest that they had just left. It was ugly beyond words, snarling and spitting flames and phlegm. Its eyes were an insane shade of red, and its nose billowed dark and menacing spits of fire and smoke. Standing on its hind feet, it must have been twenty feet tall, and its strange and ugly arms reeked of violence and rage, but most horrific of all was the sound it made. A sound so ugly and vile that all the children fainted dead away, or ran for dear life.
Israel was the only one to stand his ground face-to-face with the monster. He did not budge. Eventually the monster returned to the woods, and quiet was restored. Israel gathered and revived his fallen children, but could not quite comfort them. They all ran home and cried to their parents of their fright and fear.
The parents were very angry at Israel for taking their children through the forest, but of course they did not quite believe the children’s tale of fright. They were sure that the children had exaggerated greatly, and Israel did not contradict them.
Israel, however, knew that it was important to enter the forest once again. He spoke to each of the parents and each of the children. Somehow, the parents consented to let the children continue going to school with Israel. He gave the parents his absolute promise that they would be safe. The children’s love of Israel and the way he was with them helped them overcome their fear.
The next morning, they entered the forest once more. This time, however, Israel gave them precise instructions: “when the monstrous beast appears again, and it surely will, do not be afraid. Just drop to the ground and cover your eyes, and I will do what needs to be done.”
Sure enough, at the same place as the day before, the monstrous beast stepped violently toward them. He spit fire and hate, and was consumed by a rage so malicious and violent that the earth all around him shuddered. The children all dropped to the ground. The man-beast was standing on all fours, radiating a viciousness that cannot be described in words.
Israel walked forward toward the beast. He placed himself directly between the beast and the children. As Israel got closer, the beast seemed to rise larger and larger, until he was enveloped in a dark black cloud. Fear raced through Israel, but he centered himself in his father’s dying words: “do not fear the darkness, for God is always with you, in you, and beyond you.”
With those words as a mantra repeating itself in his heart, Israel walked forward. He kept walking. The beast did not move. Closer and closer. The dark cloud wrapped Israel in its blackness, and he found himself on the inside of the beast. In the thickness of the shadow, he was able to make out the outline of its smooth black heart—the heart of darkness—blackly pulsing inside it. Israel reached out, took the heart in his hands, and stepped backward. He found himself outside the creature’s body and outside the cloud holding the beating black heart.
Israel knew that this was the moment for which so many had waited throughout the ages. He held the heart of darkness in his hands. He had but to crush it, and with that to destroy the heart of evil forever. Redemption was at hand. The heart writhed and pulsated in his hands. It was slippery and repulsive.
But Israel noticed a trickle of blood rolling down one side of the heart. And he realized that mixed in the blood was a tear. The tear pierced his soul to the depths. Israel realized that the heart of darkness was in torment. Then a second tiny trickle of blood rolled down the side of the heart. Tears. He realized even more deeply that the heart of darkness was wracked with pain. He knew that deeper than the darkness was the pain. It was writhing in agony. It suffered the pain of alienation from source. It too contained the spark of the divine and longed to return home. He allowed his compassion to be opened wider and wider as he held the beating heart of darkness in his hands.
As his heart expanded and expanded, he came to the point beyond choice. He released the heart and set it on the ground. The earth immediately swallowed it up.
The next day, the villagers found the body of the charcoal burner. They say there was a peaceful look on his tormented face. The children continued to sing, but not quite as they had before. For the heart of darkness had left fear behind. Israel realized that to shift the world toward redemption, he could not destroy the heart of darkness, but must rather learn to hold it in his hands. The heart of darkness must not be destroyed but transformed by the love of Shekhinah, the divine feminine, and that became the core of his great teaching. He knew that every human being has their own individualized heart of darkness. Israel gave this teaching:
Hold your heart of darkness as I did, in the palm of your hand. Let your divine feminine be aroused. Let your love rise up. Let your heart expand. You will then see the spark of divinity that is seeking to express itself through your heart of darkness. Take that spark and integrate it into your Big heart, and the heart of darkness will melt into the light.
A Story from Your Unique Self by Dr. Marc Gafni