A HASIDIC TALE ABOUT STORY TELLING
The kabbalistic perspective of the soul is that upper levels--neshama, chayah and yehidah--always remain pure. This is a difficult teaching for people who equate the soul with the actions of a person. How could someone who murders, rapes, or commits other heinous crimes have a pure soul? On the other hand, we might ask how the level of soul in union with the Divine could possibly be impure?
One of the best known stories about the Baal Shem Tov is based on the theme of the purity of the soul. It is a wonderful story about a story teller who forgot his stories. It begins the day of the Baal Shem Tov's death, when he called his students to his bedside and gave each an assignment. Some were sent to other masters, some were given leadership roles, some were sent home. But one of his most cherished students was given a strange commission. Reb Yakov Yosef was told by the master to live as a wanderer and to make his living as a story teller.
Although Reb Yakov was a devoted student of the Baal Shem Tov, he was extremely disturbed when he was told about a future that seemed bleak to him. He inquired of his dying master, "Rebbe, I have done all in my power to achieve humility and acceptance, but I must say that I am terrified of living my life as a wanderer, never having a home."
The rebbe carefully scrutinized his student and finally said, "Yakov, my beloved, this you must do to heal yourself and to bring about a great healing in the world. But it will not be for the rest of your life and I am confident that you will have a home and family, for that is your destiny."
Yakov was relieved, but he still was uncertain. "Rebbe, I will do as you ask. Yet, as I have so much resistance, I fear that perhaps I will not perform my task to its fullest. How will I know when I am finished?"
The Baal Shem Tov smiled and said gently, "You will receive a clear sign and you will have absolutely no doubt that your wandering days are over.
After the death of his master, Reb Yakov began his life as a wanderer and story teller. He seemed to have an almost infinite reservoir of stories; stories that the Baal Shem had told, stories about the life of the Baal Shem and other stories that he had learned in his studies of Talmud and Midrash.
In a short time, he became famous. He was known in every synagogue and every tavern, where story telling was an important pastime. He was given plenty of food and lodging wherever he went. Indeed, in many ways he reached more people with these stories and was better known to the general community than teachers who had their own congregations. Traveling, constantly meeting new people and seeing the conditions of life in many different situations, his heart began to soften. His master clearly had known the importance of this assignment.
His work went on for a few years and Reb Yakov was transformed. It no longer mattered to him where he was and with whom he dined. He realized that every person he met offered him another opportunity to help a soul or fix the world. He no longer wondered about how long he would be on the road. He learned to take life one day at a time, from moment to moment.
One day, Reb Yakov was told about a nobleman, a baron, living in Italy who paid gold pieces for every new story he heard about the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Yakov knew that his own huge repertoire of such stories was probably the most extensive in the world, so he decided to take a trip to Rome where this baron lived. He would have to deplete his meager resources to get there, but he was certain to earn enough to make his life more comfortable in the years ahead.
He arrived the day before Shabbos. He was invited to stay at the mansion and to join the table for Friday night dinner. It was the baron's custom after the meal to have his guests tell stories. Sometimes these story telling sessions would last most of the night.
When the meal ended this Shabbos evening, the guests began to relate story after story. But each time it was Reb Yakov's turn, his mind went completely blank. No matter how much he tried, he could not remember a single story. This was most peculiar. He knew every story that was told that night, but could not come up with any of his own.
He went to bed quite confused. In all the time he had been story telling, he had never experienced a void like this. While in bed, he could not sleep. One story after another arose in his mind! Dozens upon dozens of stories. Wonderful stories, powerful stories, transformative stories. He prepared himself to tell some of them the next day when there would be another festive meal in celebration of the Shabbos.
In the late morning, seated at the table with the same group as had been there the previous night, he had the weirdest experience. Once again he could not recall a single story, or a line from a story, or even a word for that matter.
When the third festive Shabbos meal arrived, he joined the others at the table. Alas, even if his life had depended upon just one story, he would have failed. This was the most miserable experience since the death of his master. Now what would he do? The stories were gone, seemingly forever.
Meanwhile, throughout all this time the baron seemed to have infinite patience. He listened to all of the other stories and never pushed or cajoled Reb Yakov. In fact, when the third meal had ended, he asked Yakov Yosef to stay on as his guest for a while. Reb Yakov was able to persist a few days longer, but still nothing could be remembered. Saddened and somewhat ashamed, feeling that he had failed his master after all these years, he told the baron that he would have to leave.
He was completely broke, having spent everything he had to travel to Italy. Where would he would go? What would he do, now that he could no longer tell stories?
When the time came for his departure, the kindly baron gave him a small purse with money, enough to get him home, and told Yakov Yosef that if he ever remembered a good story, he should return.
When the carriage pulled out, an odd story arose in Reb Yakov's mind. Almost out of sight of the mansion, he suddenly called out, "Wait! I thought of a story!" The team was stopped and the carriage returned to the gate, where the baron was still standing.
Reb Yakov stepped down, and said, "For some reason I just remembered an event that happened when I was with the rebbe. It was so long ago, it seems like a dream to me. But, I was there, it happened, and I am confident that you have never heard this story before." The baron clearly was delighted and he invited Reb Yakov to sit in the shade.
Reb Yakov now began his story. "Once, when I was quite young and had first joined the rebbe, I remember that just after midnight during the week of Passover he called to me and a few others and said that we should join him on a journey. We hitched up the horses, climbed in the wagon and, with the Baal Shem Tov at the reins, we took off.
"That was one of my first experiences with kefitzat ha-derekh, the shortening of the way. Somehow the rebbe was able to travel great distances in impossibly short periods of time. I do not know how he did it. Dozens of times we traveled hundreds of miles in only a few hours. As the horses could normally cover only five to ten miles in an hour, we never understood how the master was able to accomplish such a feat. But he did it so many times, we stopped questioning.1
"That night we entered a particular town that was over three hundred miles from where we lived. I do not think any of us had ever visited that town because it was notorious for being anti-semitic.
"It was early in the morning when we arrived and the city was decorated for Easter. As we entered the Jewish section, everywhere we looked the windows were boarded and the doors were locked. The rebbe walked up to one of these houses and, even though it seemed to be abandoned, he persistently knocked on the door. After a few minutes, the door opened a crack and a frightened person said that nobody was home. The rebbe, however, insisted that they let him in, saying that he was Israel, the son of Eliezer. That seemed to do the trick; the Baal Shem was a legendary figure even while he was alive.
"When the door was opened, we saw over a dozen people huddled in the dim, heavily curtained room. Once inside, we spoke with the terrified group. We learned that the non-Jewish residents of this town believed a blood libel about the Jews."
I must pause for a moment in this story to let the reader know that only a couple hundred years ago it was sometimes rumored that Jews would steal babies and use their blood for secret rituals. Jews were one of many minorities that suffered the kind of atrocities that come out of bigotry and hatred. Sadly, even today in some parts of the world, this kind of ignorance continues. May it be God's will that this should come to an end in our day.
This story has a fascinating twist, however...
Reb Jakov continued: "In that town, around the time of Passover and Easter, the townspeople would catch a hapless Jew and string him up in the town center as a punishment for drinking human blood. Of course, in their recklessness, they had no idea that Jewish law forbids tasting blood of any sort. Even an animal or bird must be salted to draw out all remnants of blood before cooking the meat. But, they would not have believed this.
"Most of the time the unfortunate Jew was mocked in the town center, but he would survive. Some of time, however, especially if there had been a recent accidental death in the community, the Jew would die, as if he and all Jews were at fault for any and every misfortune. Naturally, all of the people in the room were petrified that they would be found and that one of them would be dragged off to the town square.
"My master, the Baal Shem Tov listened carefully to the fears expressed by these anxious Jews. In fact, at that very moment we could see from the front window that a half block away the townspeople were gathered in the square to hear their mayor speak. It was the mayor's job to incite the mob into a frenzy. Suddenly, the rebbe looked at me and in a booming voice, said: 'Reb Yakov, I want you to go into the town square and tell the mayor that I want to see him!'
"I was shocked. I was dressed as a Jew. I had a long black coat and our traditionally shaped hat. I had a beard and side-curls. They would spot me immediately. I would be the one to be strung up. But my master just looked at me and I knew that I had no choice.
"My legs were shaking so much when I walked into that crowded square that I could hardly stand up. The people could not believe their eyes. A Jew walking up to the mayor! I ascended the stairs to the platform; the mayor himself was horrified to have me confront him. I said to him, 'The Baal Shem Tov, Israel, the son of Eliezer, has asked that you come to see him.'
"The mayor's face turned white, then purple, then gray. I thought I was a dead man. Then he looked me in the eye and said, 'Tell him that I will come when I am finished here.'
"Somehow, the crowd let me out. I returned to the apartment and told the rebbe what had happened. He became very stern. I hardly recognized him with such a hard face. He said to me, 'Reb Yakov, return at once and tell the mayor that I demand to see him immediately!'
"I had no choice but to return. Once again the crowd was astounded that a crazy Jew would walk into their midst. I climbed the stairs and noticed that the mayor was trying to hide behind someone. I walked up to him and said, 'The Baal Shem Tov, Israel, the son of Eliezer, demands that you come before him immediately.'
"I thought that he would slit my throat. But just the opposite happened. He took my arm, descended the stairs, and followed me to the apartment. Once inside, the Baal Shem Tov guided him into a back room and the two of them were there alone for over an hour. When he came out, his face had changed completely. He went back to the square, told the people to go home, and put out a proclamation to end the blood libel punishments forever. I heard that a few months later he left the city and did not return. The Baal Shem Tov never told us what had occurred when he was alone with the mayor in that room."
THE STORY WITHIN THE STORY
When Reb Yakov had completed his story, the baron was deeply thoughtful for a few moments and then he grabbed the story teller and hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. He said with a bright smile, "I know what the Baal Shem Tov said to the mayor! You see," he said, "I was that mayor!"
Reb Yakov looked more closely at the baron. It had been many years. But, yes, something did look familiar about the this man.
The baron said, "I recognized you the minute you entered my house. I have been waiting for you many years. I knew you would come. When you could not tell any stories during Shabbos, I was worried. Nevertheless, I never gave up hope. I must say, however, when you pulled away in that carriage, I felt lost. At that moment I called out to your master, the Baal Shem Tov, and I am certain he came back to inspire you. Listen to my story.
"I was born a Jew. My father was a rabbi, his father was a rabbi, and a long ancestry of holy rabbis in our family extended as far back as our records went. When I was young and in university, I turned away from the family tradition. I felt that the ancient laws were ridiculous, the old ways were simplistic. There was a better way, I believed, and so I became a free spirit.
"It did not bother me to be chosen as the mayor of an anti-semitic town. I felt that the sooner we could be finished with the old ways, the better for everyone. But one night, about a month before you arrived, I had an eerie dream. I saw a group of ancient sages sitting around a table that had on it a shriveled, starving soul awaiting judgment. A great tzaddik sat at the head of the table.
"The sages seemed to agree that this soul was entirely worthless, nothing good was left of it, and that it should be eternally dammed. But the tzaddik said that every soul is pure, every soul has merit and if this soul could see the truth, the gates of heaven would open to it. This tzaddik extended his finger and touched the withered soul. An iridescent, glowing spot appeared where he touched it. Then the dream ended with a voice repeating over and over again: 'This tzaddik is the Baal Shem Tov; Israel, the son of Eliezer; the Baal Shem Tov.'
"After this dream I did not have the heart to continue with the blood libel, but I was the mayor. What was I to do? And then you showed up and said that the Baal Shem Tov wanted to see me! At first I was stunned, so I sent you away. But the second time I knew that this rebbe would save my life.
"In that room he told me many things. We talked of souls, heaven, hell, and the destiny of humankind. We talked of a new awareness, a change in the way people will look at things--he called it the messiah--and we talked of truth and peace. Then, knowing I was quite wealthy, he told me to sell everything I owned and divide it into thirds. One-third I was to give to the poor, one-third I was to use to buy my freedom and the last third I was to use to retire in a far away land. For the rest of my life I was to do good deeds and make my peace with God. Finally, he said that when someone came and told me my own story, I would know that I had been absolved. Thank you for coming, my friend."
In the end, both Reb Yakov and the baron were liberated in this moment. It is said that the baron gave Reb Yakov one-half of his fortune. They both became widely known for their wonderful stories, their warm hearts and their good deeds. Thus the Baal Shem Tov continued in his work even after he had passed into another reality.
Many hasidic tales suggest that a rebbe can know exactly what is needed to fix one's soul. In this story it was much more complex. As in an epic Russian novel, the rebbe had weaved lives together in a way that was not discovered until many years had passed. The Baal Shem Tov's invitation to Reb Yakov to meet the mayor and the rebbe's insistence on sending the student into a crowd of angry people was simply one scene in a much bigger play. This hasidic story brings home the message that each event is a nexus point for a multitude of time-lines that converge in that moment.
One of the most important teachings of this story is the idea that every human being has a pure soul. No matter how far we have fallen into the depths, we can be redeemed. From a Jewish point of view, the mayor could hardly have been more degenerate, for he condoned the torture and death of Jews in the era of blood libels. Yet, the story teaches that the Baal Shem Tov went out of his way to redeem the mayor's holy soul.