The Ba’al Shem Tov and the Skunk

At least twice a week I take a walk with a friend. We pass a school and often hear laughing children at recess. We enter a wood that lets out onto a clearing, and the children’s voices fade away. Occasionally a red tailed hawk is perched on a branch over our heads or soars hunting over the field. The crows caucus loudly, and I hope for a flock of bluebirds that turn iridescent in the morning light. Back in the woods there are some houses. One has an impressive garden in which an orange fruit, perhaps a persimmon, clings to its branches even as the temperatures drop. Another’s breezeway gives us a glimpse of the ocean we’ll encounter full on a little ways ahead. Sometimes the waves come over the seawall, the spray chilling our faces with 30 mile an hour winds. Sometimes we see all the way to the mainland. We walk along a road that winds along a pond. Once we stood there for half an hour routing traffic around a box turtle making its daily pilgrimage from the wetlands on one side of the road to the pond on the other. But these last few months we’ve been marking the decay of a skunk. At first it shocked us, its blood staining the ground. The blood seemed still to be running, so freshly dead it was on those first sightings. Hungry crows eventually carried its viscera and part of its carcass down into the swamp. But they’d left the skunk’s head, tufts of fur, skeletal detritus and the depression it had made in the ground. Then the snow covered it all, but we still stopped to talk about the skunk, because there is always a lesson for us. The snow has since melted, yet we still see the skunk, the pieces, the whole, its shadow. Three yards on we stand at the edge of the pond counting geese or mallards, marveling at the light, watching a swan feed, looking across to the sea.

“When you grasp the edge, you grasp the whole,” said the Ba’al Shem Tov. One lesson of the decaying skunk and the pond beyond: I can get both into my field of vision at once, or I can focus on only one or the other. When I focus on just the decaying skunk, I am overwhelmed by sadness, by ugliness and by the pain of seeing another being tortured, even in death. Sometimes I can see the ecological whole cloth: the carrion nourishing the crows, the minerals of its bones leeching into and enriching the earth, the fur providing nesting material for birds and small rodents. This is beautiful, if I can get there. If I can’t, I am just in pain in the World of Separation. When I am able to capture the picture of the decaying skunk in the same field of vision as the pond beyond, I can begin to fathom the World of Unity. If I can glimpse the World of Unity, if I can accept that all sides of the contradictions—the ugliness and the beauty, the pain and the love, the suffering and the relief—are all God-given, I can glimpse the goodness that runs through everything in this world.

Why do both the World of Separation and the World of Unity exist? The Ba’al Shem Tov, Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, who lived in Poland in the 17th century and is attributed with founding the Hasidic movement of Judaism, teaches that both good and evil are parts of the unity. He explains, through the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, that the goodness of Israel’s redemption from slavery was only made possible by the evil of Pharaoh’s enslavement. This and This are both true. The question for us is: can we see the goodness in the evil? Can we discern the unity in the separation? Can we “find sweetness in the heart of the judgment” so as to “find the loving-kindness within”?

We walk along, back into the woods. Today the snow hangs on the cedar branches. We have to walk single-file and duck under the branches to stay on the path. I go first. When I look back, I see my friend in a sparkling green and white world. I have been telling her my hurt at feeling slighted by another, my guilt for speaking about another, but now I see her beautiful smile reflecting my own back at me, the hurt having melted into sheer joy and wonder at seeing the beauty of the snow glisten in the sun. I am grateful for the connection between us that deepens and widens every walk we take.

We are in both worlds, the world of division and the world of unity. We experience pain and suffering and we have the power to ameliorate them. Our exile from Eden, from ourselves, from others and from God is the source of the pain we feel. If we accept that the pain is part of our existence, if we understand in our hearts that God gave us both the pain and the love, we can then perhaps open our hearts to discover the sparks of the Divine within ourselves that can act to ameliorate the pain and suffering.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the meaning of the verse “’you will love your God with all your heart and with all your soul,’ wherever you are and whatever is going on, counters the pain and suffering.” Accepting the daily troubles is accessing and connecting with the “spirit soul.” The teaching continues: “You shall love your God with your God, taking the loving side of God to love the judging side.” By accepting with love the daily challenges we face, the harsh, judging side is cancelled out.

She teaches me what it means to sit with people in pain, to receive and hold the pain. The skunk teaches this to me, as well. In the early stages of its decay, its odor dominated the air like murder dominates the Metro section of the daily paper. Walk after walk, I seemed to become more connected with the skunk. I looked forward to seeing it after a while, because I felt I was seeing a part of me now and how I will become in time. I have stopped being repulsed and the separation between the skunk and me has begun to dissolve.

Our job is to end the separation between the Realm of Unity and the Realm of Division, within ourselves and within the world. To do this, we need to “channel the love and the unity consciousness that we have experienced into our daily actions, consciousness and relationships.” One way we do this is through prayer.

The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that our degradation is from a loss of faith. Yet everyone has access to Divine grace. This comes from sincere prayer, because “God wants to kiss the lips of the man who speaks Torah, [God’s instruction], from trembling and awe.” Focused, sincere prayer touches God, which leads to repair of the brokenness of this world.

Today on our walk I had the sensation of absorbing the shadow of the skunk. My eyes were doing this funny thing of independently—without my willing it—zooming in and out on the piece of ground on which the skunk had died, like you can make your digital camera zoom in and out of a scene on which you are focusing. As my eyes were in this process, it seemed to me that I was absorbing the essence of the skunk, along with the essence of the pond beyond, the essence of the phragmites and of the crows that had devoured the carrion. It seemed as if my eyes were the first part of my consciousness of the absorption, but that the absorption was taking place on many levels and that I, too, was being absorbed.

How do we serve the Divine in this world? There are some actions in which this is more easily achievable for me, and perhaps you, than others. In the garden and at my CSA I have no trouble seeing the unity; God is everywhere abundantly. But it is much harder for me to maintain mystical mindfulness in the mundane and in the momentary annoyances, such as when the phone is not working at intervals or having to replace the burner on the stove. The Ba’al Shem Tov taught that “God hides behind many barriers and is veiled in many garments. But what is true is that ‘the fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory.’ Every thought, every movement comes from God. Everything is made of God’s own essence. Those who truly understand this know that the walls, towers, gates, gold and castle are only God in hiding, ‘for there is no place devoid of the Divine.’”

What keeps coming back into view for me is that I live in both worlds, the world of skunk-Oneness and the world of skunk-Division. In truth, I’m not sure I want only to be in the Realm of Unity, not yet. In truth, I’m earthy and lusty. I know that about myself. Just watch me eat some time. The Ba’al Shem Tov honored this. This is why
I think he would honor my belief about where I am right now: that I can do what it takes to help heal the brokenness, to help bring about repair in the universe, to be with people where they are and help them move closer to God, to love God with all my heart, with all my soul and with all my might, to see the goodness in the evil, AND also to struggle with the dis-integration, the ugliness, the desire, the brokenness as one who experiences that and feels that and yearns for the Unity of the One but isn’t there yet all the time. I sit with being in the “both/and” place, the This and This place, and try to be both content with where I am in the World of Separation as I strive to be in the World of Unity.


Elior, Rachel. The Mystical Origins of Hasidism. Portland, Oregon: the Littman
Library of Jewish Civilization, 2008.

Jacobson, Burt. Teachings on the Ba’al Shem Tov:
The Four Core Truths of the Ba’al Shem Tov with texts of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s

A Perennial Kabbalist, June, 2009.
The Four Core Truths, Shorter Version, sent via email, October, 2009.
The Quest for the Divine: a parable of the Ba’al Shem Tov.

Published in “Living Non Violence” enewsletter
October 19, 2018