Weekly Chasidic Story #1066 (s5778-35/ 1 Sivan 5778)

The Silent Storyteller

Shortly before his passed away on Shavuot 5520 (1760 C.E.), the holy Baal Shem Tov summoned his closest disciples, and instructed each of them what he should do afterwards.

Connection: Seasonal -- This Shavuot will be the 258th anniversary of the passing of the Baal Shem Tov.

The Silent Storyteller

Before the Baal Shem Tov passed away he called all of his main disciples to his bedside and spoke to each one individually. He told each one what occupation he was to undertake in the future and how he was to behave. Last of all, he called his devoted student and attendant, Yaakov, to him and said:

"You, Yaakov, are to travel about telling stories about me. This will serve you as your means of livelihood as well, for people will pay you to hear such incidents and happenings."

"But Rebbe," protested Yaakov, "is that to be my aim in life, to be forever wandering and to tell stories?"

"Don't you worry. You will be rich from this, with G-d's help"

The Baal Shem Tov passed away. All the disciples fulfilled his last instructions and Yaakov, too, went forth to visit settlements and villages to tell tales of the Baal Shem Tov as he had witnessed them, earning a handsome income to the bargain.

After two and a half years of such an existence Yaakov head that there was a certain wealthy man in Italy who paid a valuable gold coin for each story he was told about the Baal Shem Tov. He rejoiced at this information for with his wealth of stories he felt he could earn enough to let him stay home for a year or so.

As soon as he was able, he bought himself a horse and wagon, hired an assistant, and set forth on the long trip to Italy. The voyage took him seven months, for he was forced to stop at the villages and towns along the way in order to earn enough to cover his expenses.

When he entered the city of his destination he asked around to find out what sort of a person this wealthy man was.

"Oh, he is a man of great means," he was told. "He holds court like a king, though he himself is a pious and righteous man. He spends all his time in study and prayer for he has faithful employees running his business for him. And every Shabbos, at the Third Meal, he has someone tell stories about the Baal Shem Tov. He later pays a gold coin for each story told!"

"Where does this man come from?" asked Yaakov curiously.

"No one really knows. He came here about ten years ago and bought himself a mansion with expansive grounds. He built himself a Beit Midrash on his property which is open to the public for daily prayers. And on Shabbos he invites half of the city to join him at his table!"

Yaakov told his attendant to go to this rich man and announce that his master, a former close disciple of the holy Baal Shem Tov, had just arrived in town. The servant was told that his master was very welcome to spend Shabbos in the mansion, during which time he would have many opportunities to tell all the stories that he knew of the Baal Shem Tov.

The Jews of the town were overjoyed to hear of the arrival of a master storyteller. They all gathered at the Shabbos table of the rich man after their own meals to listen avidly to the stories that Yaakov had to offer. After the traditional Shabbos night songs, the host finally turned to his important guest and nodded to him to commence.

Yaakov opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. Suddenly the strangest sensation had come over him and he actually went blank. He forgot everything that he had ever known concerning his rabbi. He tried desperately to reconstruct an image of his rebbe before his mind's eye so that he might better recall some incident of his life, but he couldn't even remember any of his features. He tried to recall all the places that he had visited with his rebbe, but even his most supreme efforts were of no help.

He was utterly confused and helpless; he sat at his place with downcast eyes and a fallen countenance.

The townsfolk who had expressly come to hear his tales began whispering to one another, hinting that he was really a fraud, that he only sought a free meal and had never in his life seen the Baal Shem Tov. But the host, most disappointed of all, contained himself and said:

"We will wait until tomorrow. Maybe until then you will remind yourself of some incident."

That night Reb Yaakov wept in bed. He struggled to conjure up an image of his rebbe's face or even the faces of some of his friends, the Baal Shem Tov's disciples, but it was as if he had never seen the Baal Shem Tov at all. His mind was a complete blank; every trace of those former days was completely erased from his memory.

On Shabbos day the whole city had again gathered at the rich man's table, this time out of curiosity, to see if the guest had recovered his memory and had any stories to tell of the Baal Shem Tov. They suspected him more than ever of being a fraud, and when their host nodded to his guest after the zemiros, the guest only shrugged his shoulders hopelessly with tears in his eyes.

"Believe me", he said pathetically, "such a thing has never happened to me before! This is a most unusual occurrence".

What could be the reason for this unusual loss of memory - wondered the perturbed Yaakov all the Shabbos. Is it maybe because I ventured out of my familiar territory? The Baal Shem Tov said that I was to travel among the villages and cities where he had been known, where people had heard of the Baal Shem Tov and desired to hear more.

Yaakov spent the whole day in tearful prayer seeking a solution to his dilemma.

At the Third Meal, the rich man's house was packed. Everyone had come to scorn the faker who had dared to take advantage of their benevolent host. They teased him and jeered at him but he took it all in his stride.

However, that evening after the havdala ceremony signaling the end of Shabbos, Yaakov went to the rich man to bid him farewell. "I can no longer avail myself of your gracious hospitality. I have been prevented by heaven from telling any of the many stories that I know of my rebbe and have no excuse to remain. I therefore beg your forgiveness and seek your permission to leave."

"Please remain until Tuesday," his host urged him. "Give yourself another chance. It may be that the trials of your journey have made you temporarily forget. Your memory may yet return to you. Stay until Tuesday and then we shall see."

Yaakov reluctantly prolonged his stay. But he did not remember anything in the interval and when Tuesday finally arrived he again sought his host. "I thank you kindly for your gracious hospitality and beg forgiveness for the embarrassment I have caused you. Please let me go now."

The wealthy man gave Yaakov a generous donation and bade him farewell.

Yaakov took his place in his wagon and signaled to his attendant to drive. But as soon as the horses began trotting he shouted at him to stop the wagon.

"I remember! I remember!" he screamed excitedly as he jumped down and ran back to the rich man's house.

The rich man was waiting for him and begged him to tell his story.

It happened, he began, once just before the gentiles celebrated their Easter. That Shabbos the Baal Shem Tov seemed most upset and tense, continuously pacing back and forth. Immediately after Shabbos he had Alexei, his customary driver, prepare the wagon. He took along with him three of his close followers, including myself. We sat in the wagon and traveled all that night. When we reached our destination in the morning, the horses stopped of their own accord at a large house in a big city.

The windows and doors were tightly barred but the Baal Shem Tov told me to knock nevertheless. An old woman peered out and shouted angrily:

"What are you doing here now? Are you all mad? Do you want to be murdered? Don't you know that today the gentiles kill any Jew who is out on the streets! Today is the day that they take revenge on the Jews who they say killed their god. If they find out it will be tragic for you and we will also suffer the consequences. Now hurry, get out of town while you still can!"

The Baal Shem Tov gently urged her aside and entered, ushering us after him and closing the door behind us all. The members of the household were huddled together, speechless with fright. The old woman began ranting and raving against the Baal Shem Tov but he paid her no heed. He took his position by a window, moved the curtain aside and looked out. The woman shrieked that he was bringing destruction upon them all.

The Baal Shem Tov could see the city square from his vantage point. He saw a high platform with thirty steps erected in the center and a mob of people already assembled, waiting for the bishop. The bishop's address was the signal for the rampage, bloodshed and havoc that was annually wrought upon the lives and property of the Jews of the city.

Soon the sounds of bells announced the coming of the bishop's procession. The Baal Shem Tov watched the procession advance until the bishop finally took his place at the podium on the platform. Then he turned to me and said:

"Yaakov, go to the bishop and tell him to come to me immediately!"

When the members of the household heard these words they were shocked. "How can you send a man to his slaughter! Why, that bloodthirsty mob outside will rip him apart limb from limb!"

But the Baal Shem Tov paid them no heed and just told me to do as he had bidden, and to hurry.

I had implicit faith in my master for I had seen him perform great wonders and miracles in the past and I went forth fearlessly to do his bidding. And wonder of all wonders, the mob ignored me. I passed through them unharmed and untouched. I reached the central platform and climbed up the thirty steps while all was silent.

I went boldly up to the bishop and delivered my message.

"The Baal Shem Tov is here and he summons you to come immediately."

"I am aware of his presence," answered the bishop. "Tell him that after I have finished my speech I will come to him."

As I returned to the house I could see all the Jews peering out with baited breaths, from cracks and slits, while I threaded my way back. I delivered the message to the Besht and he answered angrily:

"Tell the bishop that he must come instantly, without further delay! Tell him not to be a fool!"

When I made my way back to the platform the bishop had already commenced his address. I tugged at this robe and repeated the words of the Baal Shem Tov. The bishop listened and then turned to his audience.

"Please excuse me. I shall presently return."

The bishop followed me down the steps and back to the house. When we entered, the Baal Shem Tov took the bishop aside into another room, and was closeted with him there for two hours. When the rebbe emerged from the room, he ordered the wagon prepared and we journeyed back home.

This took place about ten years ago and to this day, I don't know what transpired between them or what happened afterwards with that bishop.

It's very strange, mused Yaakov, that I haven't remembered this story all these ten years until today.

"Praise be to G-d," said the rich man lifting his hands upward in thanksgiving. "I can testify to the truth of your story. The moment that you came to me I recognized you but I was silent. Now I shall tell you the end of the story.

"I am the very bishop in your tale! I had converted from Judaism, tempted by the lure of false knowledge. I was saved in the end by the merit of my ancestors who were saintly men. They begged the Baal Shem Tov to help me. They appeared to me in a dream as well, beseeching that I return to the fold. I promised them that I would run away the next morning, before the crowd assembled.

"But when the morrow dawned I was again swayed by my evil inclination. I saw all the people gathered, waiting for me to address them. I also saw that the Baal Shem Tov had arrived and I was undecided. When the church bells began chiming I found myself walking to the central platform. I felt that I could not disappoint the crowd that was waiting for me. I could not forego all the honor and glory that went with my position.

"When you called to me the first time, I was still in the clutches of my evil inclination. But when you came the second time…I suddenly became another person. I followed you to the Baal Shem Tov and he showed me how I was to repent.

"I subsequently gave half of my fortune to the poor and a quarter of it to the king that he might permit me to leave the country upon some pretext that I had given him.

"The Baal Shem Tov gave me a sign at the time. He told me that if someone were to come and tell me this very story - I would know that my repentance had finally been accepted. When I first saw you in my house I was overjoyed, for I remembered you. But when I realized that you had forgotten the incident, I knew that heavenly intervention had prevented you from remembering.

"All the time that you stayed by me, I prayed and repented and was finally rewarded now when you returned to tell me this very story.

"You will no longer have to continue your wandering. I shall shower you with gifts and money that will last you for the rest of your life."

Source: Lightly edited and supplemented by Yerachmiel Tilles from the English edition of Tales of the Baal Shem Tov (vol. 2) by Y. Y. Klapholtz , as translated by Sheindel Weinbach

Biographical notes:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458 - 6 Sivan 5520 (Aug. 1698 - May 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov ["Master of the Good Name"-often referred to as "the Besht" for short], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734 C.E.), and made the until-then underground Chasidic movement public. He wrote no books, although many works claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at Harivash, published by Kehos.

Connection: This Shavuot is the 258th yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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