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Ba'al Shem Tov: Never Forget

Before his passing, the Ba’al Shem called for his disciples and told each of them how to continue and what would be their source of livelihood. To his disciple and assistant, Reb Yaakov, the Ba’al Shem Tov said, “You will journey to all the places where people knew me, tell stories about me and that will be your source of livelihood." Reb Yaakov was dismayed and asked, “What is the point of me wandering around and telling stories?”

 “Don’t worry, you will become wealthy from it, with God’s help,” the Ba’al Shem Tov comforted him.

After the Ba’al Shem Tov passed away, his disciples fulfilled his directives and Reb Yaakov began to journey from town to town to tell stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov that he had witnessed. It indeed brought him a good livelihood.

Two and a half years after the passing of the Ba’al Shem Tov, Reb Yaakov heard that in Italy there lived a wealthy man who would give a golden coin for every story of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Reb Yaakov decided to set out for Italy and tell this man all the stories that he knew about the Ba’al Shem. Surely, he reasoned, this would sustain him and his family for at least a year. He bought a horse and hired an assistant and set out for the long journey.

When Reb Yaakov arrived at the wealthy man’s city, he was told that he was an extremely wealthy man who lived like a king. He would sit and learn Torah all day and his loyal helpers would run his business. He had been living in the city for ten years and had built a synagogue on his property where the townspeople would pray daily. On Shabbat, he would host most of the townspeople for the Shabbat feasts. At every feast, he would ask his guests to tell him stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov. At the end of Shabbat, he would give each guest a golden coin for each story that he had told.

Reb Yaakov went to the wealthy man’s estate and asked the servants to tell him that the Ba’al Shem Tov’s assistant had arrived and that he would be happy to relate stories of his master. The wealthy man invited him to stay in his home and said that he should wait until Shabbat to tell his stories. When the townsfolk heard that the assistant and disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov had come, they all came to hear his stories, as they were already accustomed to hearing stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov on Shabbat.

The Shabbat feast finally came, and the wealthy man asked Reb Yaakov to tell a story. Strangely and much to his embarrassment, Reb Yaakov could not remember anything. He desperately tried to trigger his memory by drawing the image of the Ba’al Shem Tov in his mind, or of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s hometown of Mezhibuzh, or of the other disciples of the Ba’al Shem Tov. But his mind was completely blank. Nothing that would arouse a memory of a story. His memory was a completely clean slate. Reb Yaakov was confused and humiliated. The townspeople were staring at him with anger and ridicule, for they assumed that he had lied about his connection with the Ba’al Shem Tov and had surely never even seen him in his life. The wealthy man remained silent and then said, “Let us wait until tomorrow. Perhaps you will remember something.”

Reb Yaakov cried all night long and managed to recreate the picture of his fellow disciples in his mind but to no avail. He had no idea how to even begin to tell a story of the Ba’al Shem Tov. At the feast following morning prayers, the wealthy man asked him once again, “Perhaps you can remember a story?” Reb Yaakov had nothing to answer. “This has never happened to me,“ Reb Yaakov said to him. “I am sure that there is something behind this.”

 “Let us wait until the third meal,” the wealthy man said. “Perhaps you will remember.” But Reb Yaakov couldn’t remember a thing at the third meal, and he fell into deep sadness. To make matters worse, the townspeople were loudly ridiculing him. Reb Yaakov righteously accepted everything with love and attempted to find a reason for this unlikely set of circumstances. He couldn’t find any real reason and prayed to God to open his eyes.

After Shabbat was over, the wealthy man asked Reb Yaakov once more if he could remember a story. Reb Yaakov was so agitated and embarrassed that he went to his room and cried. He then went to the wealthy man and said “Perhaps in Heaven they do not want me to earn this large sum of money, or perhaps they do not want me to tell stories of the Ba’al Shem Tov. I don’t know why this happened to me. But one thing I do know: This is no coincidence, God forbid. And now, I will return home.”

“Please stay until Tuesday,” the wealthy man urged him. “If you still don’t remember anything by then, you will embark on your journey home.” Reb Yaakov remained until Tuesday, and still could not remember anything. He went to take leave of the wealthy man, who gave him a generous sum for his trouble. Reb Yaakov sat himself on his wagon when suddenly, a dramatic story of the Ba’al Shem Tov came back to him. He went back to the wealthy man, who immediately ushered him into his room, waiting expectantly for Reb Yaakov to begin his story.

“Once,” Reb Yaakov related, “it was just before the non-Jews’ spring holiday. Over the entire Shabbat, the Ba’al Shem Tov seemed very preoccupied. Immediately after Shabbat, he directed his wagon driver to prepare the horses and he took three people, myself included, with him. The wagon drove the entire night and we did not know the purpose of the journey. As the sun rose, we arrived at a large city. The horses waited next to a large home with closed doors and windows. The Ba’al Shem Tov directed us to knock on the door. An old woman came out and fearfully whispered, ‘What are you doing here? You are going to get us all killed! On this day, the Christians murder any Jew who steps outside, for today is their holiday. And if they don’t find a Jew in the street, they choose a Jew on whom they can take revenge for the death of their messiah. And woe is he who is chosen. They drag him from his home and torture him until he dies. And now, when they see that Jews from Poland have come here, you will all be killed and we will also suffer because of you. Flee the city as quickly as you can!’”

“The Ba’al Shem Tov paid no attention to her words, entered the home, and went up to the attic. He directed us to bring in our belongings, while the residents of the home were cowering inside. The old woman spoke angrily to the Ba’al Shem Tov. But he did not answer her. He went over to the window and moved the curtain aside. ‘Why did you open the curtain?’ the old woman shouted angrily, but the Ba’al Shem Tov ignored her cries. He saw a stage in the town square and a large crowd had gathered there, waiting for the bishop. Soon the church bells announced the arrival of the bishop.”

“The Ba’al Shem Tov was watching this scene, and then turned to me: ‘Yaakov! Go tell the bishop to come to me immediately!’ The people in the home were beside themselves. ‘You fool! How can you send this poor man to his death? They will tear him to pieces!’ But the Ba’al Shem Tov paid no attention and said, ‘Yaakov, go quickly to the bishop. Do not fear!’ I was already quite familiar with the Ba’al Shem Tov and I walked up to the stage with no fear. Nobody in the entire crowd said a word. In Yiddish, I said to the bishop, ‘The Ba’al Shem Tov is here!’ ‘Tell him that after my sermon I will come to him immediately,’ the bishop answered.”

“The people who lived in the house were peeking through the curtains and saw that I had been near the stage and that I had spoken with the bishop. They then apologized to the Ba’al Shem Tov, but he paid no attention to their original words nor to their current apology. When I told him what the bishop had said, he angrily replied, ‘Go again and tell him that he must come immediately, tell him not to be a fool.’ I returned to the stage, and the bishop had already begun his sermon. I tugged on his robe and told him what the Ba’al Shem Tov had said. ‘Wait here, I will be right back,’ said the bishop to the large crowd. And he came with me to the Ba’al Shem Tov. The two of them went into a room and closed the door. They were there for about two hours, and then the Ba’al Shem Tov came out and directed us all to leave immediately. I do not know what happened with the bishop. And I do not even know the name of the city. The Ba’al Shem Tov never told me. “

When Reb Yaakov finished his story, the wealthy man raised his hands to heaven in praise to God. “I knew that you were telling the truth,” he said. “As soon as I saw you, I recognized you, but I remained silent. And I will tell you the rest of the story, for I am the bishop!  I was originally a Jew, and then I fell to the depths of the impure husks. In his great kindness, the Ba’al Shem Tov extricated me from there, for my ancestors were holy and they asked the Ba’al Shem Tov to help me. The Ba’al Shem Tov appeared to me repeatedly in dreams, night after night, telling me to return from my sinful ways. That night, I promised him that before the break of dawn, I would flee the city – before the crowds would gather to hear my sermon. For in my sermons, I would speak against the Jews and incite the crowd to kill them.”

“However, when I arose before dawn, the impurity overpowered my good intention. I saw the large crowd and how with every step that I took from my house, all the bells were ringing. My evil inclination would not let me surrender all of this honor and I decided to first speak to the crowd and then to go to the Ba’al Shem Tov. But when you called for me the second time, I was transformed into a new person and returned to my heritage. The Ba’al Shem Tov told me how to rectify my sins and I have repented. I gave half of my wealth to the poor. A quarter of my money went to the king so that he would allow me to make some excuse and go to a different country.”

“The Ba’al Shem Tov instructed me as to how to rectify my sins and said to me, ‘You will know that your sins have been forgiven when someone will come and tell you your own story.’ Hence, when I saw you, I invested all of my efforts in repentance. And when I saw that you had forgotten all of your stories, I understood that it was because of me, because my sin had not yet been properly rectified. And I did what I did, and my prayer was effective and with God’s help, I have rectified everything. And you will no longer have to travel from place to place, for I will give you gifts that will support you for your entire life. “

Reb Yaakov’s life work was to tell stories. The great effort that Reb Yaakov invested in telling stories about his master, the Ba’al Shem Tov – and even more so – remembering those stories, helps us to contemplate the secret of memory.

First, it is special that the storyteller is named Yaakov, while the subject of the stories is Yisrael (Ba’al Shem Tov). Both are the names of Jacob. Chasidut explains that Yaakov and Yisrael are the states of smallness and greatness of a Jew, respectively. Yisrael can be permuted to “Li Rosh” (I have a head) and Yaakov can be permuted to yud akev  (yud heel). This can help us to understand the answer to the question: Why is Jacob still called Jacob even after he is told “Your name will no longer be called Yaakov, but rather, Yisrael will be your name?”[1] Why is Yaakov’s smallness still needed after we have achieved greatness? According to this story, Yaakov’s role is to tell stories about Yisrael…

Rebbe David of Lelov said that in the future, people will learn the “Tractate of David of Lelov.” The saga of the lives of tzaddikim is Torah. And who will tell these stories? The tzaddik himself. Every Jew, and particularly every tzaddik, has two levels: Who he is in his essence (his Li rosh) and who can tell his story, including all his crises and falls. It is important to maintain the Yaakov inside, who remembers all the ups and downs of life and tells them as one long story that needs to be learned. This is the secret of memory – particularly the memories that are part of the musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah.

[1] Genesis 35:10.

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