Weekly Chasidic Story #849 (s5774-27 / 1
Adar Sheini 5774)
To Save a Drowning Man
The Baal Shem Tov explained
great length the meaning of the verse in Psalms 107, "Those who go down
to the sea in ships and do work in raging waters."
Connection: Weekly Reading--the sacrifices (yes, I know,
the Thanksgiving sacrifice is in Tzav, not Vayikra; but next week has to be
a Purim story).
To Save a Drowning Man
The town of Harki belonged to a branch of the Polish aristocratic Radziville
family. The owner spent most of his time in France and was rarely seen on his
One of the young noblemen of the family, Benedict by name, had a very close
friend in France named Pierre Louis, a young man from an assimilated Jewish
family. Indeed, he was so alienated from his Jewish roots that he had no remaining
Jewish ties at all.
When Benedict married, he settled on the estates of his wife's family in Russia.
His good friend, Pierre Louis, also married into a wealthy family, and settled
nearby. The two lived a life of luxury and pleasure and were constantly in each
After many years had passed, Pierre Louis was widowed. Left with no anchor in
life, he immersed himself totally in a life of debauchery in the company of
the Russian and Polish aristocrats who were his companions.
Once, when the chasid Rabbi Nissan went to visit the Baal Shem Tov,
the Baal Shem Tov explained to him at great length the meaning of the verse
in Psalms 107, "Those who go down to the sea in ships and do work in raging
waters": * The phrase "those who go down to the sea" refers to
the souls that come down and enter the bodies, comparable to the seas which
cover everything, as the body covers the Divine soul within it.
"But there are two kinds of descent: in one, souls descend into the sea
of life - i.e. when one finds oneself within a circle of Torah. In the other,
the souls descend into the midst of a raging sea without any ship in which to
take refuge. Those Jews who descend into the physical body, but live in an atmosphere
devoid of the light of Torah, flounder as if in a raging sea.
"Therefore," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "it is the duty of
other Jewish souls who `do their work in raging waters,' to save them, as they
would a drowning man."
The Baal Shem Tov made it clear to Rabbi Nissan that he was referring precisely
to the friend of Benedict, Pierre Louis, who was, in actuality, a Jew named
"This winter, Benedict will go hunting with his friend Pierre Louis and
they will both visit Harki. At that time, I want you to read this letter that
I am giving you, and then carry out all the instructions in it."
Rabbi Nissan was to inform Pierre Louis that he was a Jew, named Pesach Tzvi,
and that he must return to his people. Even if Pierre Louis didn't want to listen,
Reb Nissan must repeat to him exactly what the Baal Shem Tov had said. The Baal
Shem Tov assured him that he would be successful.
When Rabbi Nissan returned to Harki the town was buzzing with anticipation of
the aristocracy's hunting season who habitually visited the area.
Benedict and Pierre Louis were staying, as they always did, at the home of the
local priest. But this time, as Benedict entered the house, he tripped over
the threshold and fell. The pistol he was carrying in his pocket discharged,
and a bullet lodged in his stomach.
Pandemonium reigned as a doctor tried in vain to staunch the flow of blood.
Riders were dispatched to neighboring towns to bring other doctors, but the
patient's condition deteriorated steadily.
As news of the accident spread throughout the town, the Jews were distressed
to hear that Benedict, who had always been friendly toward them, was in grave
danger. Rabbi Nissan opened the letter of the Baal Shem Tov, and to his astonishment,
it contained a prescription for treating Benedict's wound. In addition, the
letter said that if anyone inquired how Rabbi Nissan came to know this cure,
he should say that he learned it from Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.
On the second day after the accident Rabbi Nissan arrived at the house, saying
he had a cure for Benedict. The desperate doctor allowed the Jew to be admitted.
The rabbi spread an ointment on the wound and also put some medicine down the
wounded man's throat. To the amazement and relief of all, the cure took effect
within an hour.
Only then did Rabbi Nissan approach Pierre Louis and ask to speak to him in
private. He related all the words of the Baal Shem Tov, telling him that he
was a Jew, and must return to his people, but Pierre Louis was too shocked to
It was months later, in the spring, that Pierre Louis arrived in Harki and came
to Rabbi Nissan. He said he could not rest since the day they had spoken, and
now he finally resolved to return to his people. Over the next year he studied
and made great progress.
Benedict was quite sympathetic to his friend's return to Judaism, and as a gift
he gave him an estate outside Harki. As an additional display of good will,
Benedict presented to the local Jews the land on which their houses were built.
In this manner the existence of the Baal Shem Tov and his circle of mystics
became known in Harki.
Adapted with permission from the rendition in //lchaimweekly.com (#1073).
Weekly Reading--the sacrifices (yes, I know, the Thanksgiving sacrifice is in
Tzav, not Vayikra; but next week has to be a Purim story).
Editor's note: Four are required to bring a thanksgiving offering to the
holy Temple (today, to recite the Gomel blessing): (see also Psalm 107)
One who safely crosses the sea
One who recovers from possibly life-threatening illness
One who is released from prison
One who safely crosses the desert
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458- 6 Sivan 5520
(Sept. 1698 - June 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov ["master
of the good Name], 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.). He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings.
One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava'at
Harivash, published by Kehos.
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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