The Deaths Of Two Hasidic Masters
These stories are passed on as teachings about how to die.
In these accounts, the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the modern Hasidic movement, and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, his great- grandson, teach (through the example of their own deaths) about the importance of facing one's death, the centrality of prayer, the virtue of attending to another's burial--and the possibility that death is not the end. These passages from Histalkut Hanefesh ("The Soul's Leavetaking") are excerpted from Jewish Reflections on Death, Jack Riemer ed. (Schocken Books).
The Ba'al Shem Tov
When the Baal Shem Tov fell ill shortly before his death, he would not take to bed. His body grew weak, his voice faint, and he would sit alone in his room meditating. On the eve of Shavuot, the last evening of his life, his intimates were gathered around him and he preached to them about the giving of the Torah. In the morning he requested that all of them gather together in his room and he taught them how they should care for his body after death. Afterward he asked for a siddur (prayer book) and said, "I wish to commune yet a while with Hashem Yitbarach (the [Divine] Name, may He be blessed)."
Afterward they heard him talking to someone and they inquired with whom he was speaking. He replied, "Do you not see the Angel of Death? He always flees from me, but now he has been given permission to come and flaps his wings and is full of joy." Afterward all the men of the city gathered together to greet him on the holiday [of Shavuot] and he spoke words of Torah to them. Afterward he said, "Until now I have treated you with hesed (loving kindness). Now you must treat me with hesed. (The burial is considered the truest act of hesed, because there is no [possible] repayment.) He gave them a sign that at his death the two clocks in the house would stop.
While he was washing his hands, the large clock stopped and some of the men immediately stood in front of it so that the others should not see it. He said to them, "I am not worried about myself, for I know clearly that I shall go from this door and immediately I shall enter another door." He sat down on his bed and told them to stand around him. He spoke words of Torah and ordered them to recite the verse [from Psalms]: "And let Thy graciousness, O Lord our God, be upon us; establish Thou also the work of our hands for us; Yea the work of our hands establish Thou it." He lay down and sat up many times and prayed with great kavanah [intention] and devotion, until the syllables of his words could no longer be distinguished. He told them to cover him with blankets and began to shake and tremble as he used to do when he prayed the Silent Prayer [also known as the Amidah or "standing prayer"]. Then little by little he grew quiet. At that moment they saw that the small clock too had stopped. They waited and saw that he had died. He died on Shavuot, 1760.