story #236 (s5762-32 /12 Iyar 5762)
(This Friday is Pesach Sheini-"Second Passover", which teaches us never to be discouraged: there is always a second chance.)
A WHISPER IN TIME
Everyone in town was dressed in their festive best in honor of the great occasion. Guests of exalted stature were arriving from everywhere in the region. Not everyday, or even every year, did such a momentous event take place: The holy Baal Shem Tov himself had arrived, accompanied by one of his grandsons whose wedding was to take place that very day.
The wedding procession began. The Baal Shem Tov strode slowly at its head, the chassan at his side, the townspeople in their finery following behind.
As the procession moved toward the location for the chupa, it passed a solitary Jew in a wagon, a stranger that no one recognized. Nobody paid him much attention either. Then, to everyone's surprise, the Baal Shem Tov suddenly halted the procession, and turned aside to approach the wagon. He whispered something in the ear of the rider, and then after a brief exchange, promptly returned to his place and gave his arm to the chassan.
The man in the wagon appeared to be a simple fellow, but the chasidim in attendance were now all convinced that nevertheless, he must be one of the hidden tzadikim. After all, hadn't the holy Rebbe delayed the wedding solely to exchange a few words with him?
The wedding was extraordinary. The joy and elevation of spirit that night was unique, impossible to describe. Everybody was carried away by the celebration, as if their ties to this lowly world had been severed.
The next day, the chasidim recalled the strange
incident of the preceding evening, and were seized with curiosity
as to the identity of the tzadik whom the Baal Shem Tov had
troubled himself to speak with at such a precious time. After investigating
and managing to discover at which inn he was staying, they hurried
there in the hope that he would consent to talk with them. Perhaps
he would even reveal what the Baal Shem Tov had whispered.
"Rebbe?" reacted the man, appearing quite surprised. "I'm neither a Rebbe nor the son of a Rebbe."
"There is no need to conceal yourself from us, Rebbe," persisted the chasidim. "We know the truth. If our master delayed the wedding procession to confide secrets in your ear, then obviously you are a tzadik."
"I'm neither a holy man nor the son of a holy man," insisted the stranger. He seemed to be stressed as he tried to defuse their enthusiasm. "Your master spoke to me about a strictly personal matter."
But the chasidim were not to be denied. "Nevertheless, please tell us what he told you," they clamored.
Now he was noticeably uncomfortable. After much hesitation he finally accepted that he would not be able to shake them off, and agreed to relate his story.
"I live in a small town. In the house opposite mine, lives my best friend, whom I have known since childhood. He is a peddler by profession; he periodically travels to all the villages and settlements in our area, selling petty goods and wares. Upon his return from a lengthy journey, his friends and neighbors gather at his house to welcome him back.
"Once, after an especially long trip, I went to visit him. I was the first, as usual, and the house was empty. His children were playing in the yard and his wife was busy in the kitchen. They told me that he wasn't home, that he had stepped out and would be right back. Feeling the desire to smoke my pipe while I was waiting, I opened the cupboard where I knew he kept his tobacco. The first thing that struck my eyes was his wallet, just laying there in plain view. It was full of money, all his profits from his last trip that he would use to pay his debts, support his family, and reinvest in new merchandise.
"I was shocked that he would leave his wallet so exposed and accessible. It wasn't right. I decided to teach my friend a lesson. I stuck the wallet in my pocket.
" 'Will he be startled when he sees it is missing!' I smiled grimly to myself. 'That will teach him to be so careless.' Of course, I intended to give it right back. But first I wanted to see the expression on his face.
"I stood there for a while but he didn't show up. I decided
to take care of something in my house while I was waiting, and so
I left, deliciously anticipating the lesson in responsibility I was
about to impart.
"Things, however, worked out much differently than I expected. When my friend returned home and discovered to his shock that all the money he had worked so hard to amass was gone, he erupted in bitter screams. His wife broke down in tears, crying as if her heart would break. The whole family turned the house upside-down in a frantic search, but, of course, to no avail. All the friends and neighbors who were streaming in to welcome my friend were caught up in the whirlwind of excitement.
"When I went back to my friend's house, a gloom of mourning prevailed; it was like Tisha b'Av. My prank had turned out to be not so amusing after all. In such an atmosphere, and with so many people around, I didn't have the courage to confess that I was the one responsible for all of this disturbance and crisis. I composed my face as if I didn't know anything and mumbled some words of condolence to my friend. I figured I could soon return the wallet at a more suitable occasion, at a calmer moment, and when no one would see me.
"But day followed day while the opportunity I sought never presented itself. My friend was struggling to arrange terms with his creditors, who always seemed to be around, pursuing him, and I knew I couldn't return the money at such a time without everyone labeling me a thief.
"Several months went by. I still had the money. I found myself considering seriously the seductive suggestions of my yetzer hara to invest the money in some profitable enterprise. Then, when I returned the money, I could add an appropriate large bonus that I would save for him. But how could I maneuver that in my town, where everyone knew me and my situation? If all of a sudden I engaged in business with lots of start-up capital, it would instantly arouse suspicion.
"I realized I would have to move temporarily to a distant location.
I hired a wagon and set off. With my head full of all sorts of plans,
I arrived here just at the time of the wedding."
The chasidim listened dumbstruck to the recital of the man whom only moments before they had been convinced was a tzadik. As he reached this point in his story it was clear that he wished to stop. But the eyes of the chasidim continued to press him, and he felt compelled to continue. Or perhaps he figured it was best for him to reveal the whole truth; hopefully, this would count as genuine vidui-a full confession-and help to absolve him of his sin. Whichever the reason, after a few moments' pause, he resumed his story.
"When the Baal Shem Tov saw me last night, he came over and whispered in my ear, 'It's not too late to rectify your mistake. Go back home and immediately return the money. I promise you that your friend will believe you and won't think that you intended to steal it. If necessary, I'll even come myself and testify as to your true motives. But be careful: if you delay any longer, it may be too late.'
"With his words, I felt as if a heavy weight had slipped off my heart. I stayed the night, and now I am setting out to go straight home and do exactly as the Baal Shem Tov told me."
As he completed his story, his eyes glistened with tears. "As you see, I am the one who learned a valuable lesson for life."
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