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Rabbi Gershon's Dream

by Doug Lipman

Rabbi Gershon wrote to his brother-in-law, "My family and I are coming to see you. We will visit you on our way to move, finally, to the Holy Land."

Rabbi Gershon's desire to emigrate was not unusual. Any pious Jew in Eastern Europe during the 1700's wanted to live in the Holy Land. The land itself was holy. The air was holy. People who moved there said it was like getting a second soul.

What was unusual was this: As eager as he was to move to the Holy Land, Rabbi Gershon knew he would not begin his journey without his brother-in-law's blessing. Why? His brother-in-law was the famous mystical rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov. If the Baal Shem Tov would give his blessing to Rabbi Gershon's journey, he could be sure it would be a success.

Therefore, Rabbi Gershon travelled overland across Eastern Europe to Medzhibozh, the city where the Baal Shem Tov lived. When Rabbi Gershon arrived, the Baal Shem Tov greeted him warmly, ushering him to the quarters the Baal Shem Tov had prepared for him.

When he entered the quarters, Rabbi Gershon's mouth dropped. The Baal Shem Tov had prepared an entire apartment for Rabbi Gershon and his family. Why such a spacious dwelling for a short visit?

The next day, Rabbi Gershon rested from his journey. Whenever he heard someone walk near his door, though, he looked out - in case it was a messenger from the Baal Shem Tov, summoning Rabbi Gershon to received the Baal Shem Tov's blessing.

But the Baal Shem Tov never called.

Rabbi Gershon was a great scholar. So he spent the next, unexpectedly free days studying the Talmud. He went to the house of study, where the other scholars sat, studied, and debated together.

The Talmud has no "page one" - to remind us that there is no beginning and no ending to study of the Torah. At the center of each page of Talmud is a passage from the Torah. Around that passage are arranged the most revered, ancient commentaries on that passage. Around those commentaries are slightly more modern texts that comment on the ancient ones.

Studying a page of Talmud may take a day - or a week or longer. Often, a group of students will spend a year studying a single tractate.

So Rabbi Gershon spent his days studying the ramifications of passage after passage. This way, several weeks passed.

Then one day, a messenger appeared at the house of study, asking Rabbi Gershon to meet the Baal Shem Tov in his office.

When Rabbi Gershon arrived, he saw the Baal Shem Tov's grandson seated across from the Baal Shem Tov himself. That was unusual! Rabbi Gershon thought, "Perhaps the Baal Shem Tov wants his grandson to witness someone being given a blessing to go to the Holy Land!"

The Baal Shem Tov said, "You know my grandson?"

"Of course."

The Baal Shem Tov smiled. "I would like you to teach him."

Rabbi Gershon was surprised. "He is coming with me to the Holy Land?"

"No," said the Baal Shem Tov. "I would like you to teach him here."

Rabbi Gershon tried to keep smiling. To teach the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov was, after all, a great honor! With as much gratitude in his voice as he could muster, he said, "Of course."

Starting the next morning, Rabbi Gershon's days in the house of study changed. He brought the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov with him. Now only a few hours each day were for his own study of the Talmud. The other hours he taught.

Rabbi Gershon devoted himself to his teaching and his studies, but each day he hoped that the next day would bring a blessing from the Baal Shem Tov - and the beginning of his holy journey. This went on for many months.

It went on so long that Rabbi Gershon had nearly completed an entire cycle of the Talmud since he arrived in Medzhibozh. It is customary that, when you finish a cycle of Talmud study, you give a banquet, to which you invite your teachers and those who have studied with you. This way, you celebrate - punctuate - this particular moment in your endless encounter with the Talmud's wisdom.

One day, Rabbi Gershon had a thought: This banquet would be a perfect opportunity for the Baal Shem Tov to give him his blessing! When he thought about it, it seemed clear. This was what the Baal Shem Tov had been waiting for. To have studied the entire Talmud with the constant intention of leaving the next day for the Holy Land - this was what Rabbi Gershon had needed, to be spiritually ready to depart!

Rabbi Gershon thought ahead. "If I wait to finish my studies before setting the date for the banquet, that will cause a delay of several days. Instead, I will set the date now. That way, the banquet can happen the very day my studies are over! At last, I will receive the Baal Shem Tov's blessing and begin my journey into greater holiness!"

Rabbi Gershon calculated on what day he would finish studying. He set the next day as the date for the banquet and continued his visits to the house of study. But the night before the banquet, he had not yet finished the last tracdtate!

So Rabbi Gershon studied the entire night. After morning prayers, however, he was so tired he could not continue. He had to nap. So he lay down. He dreamed.

He dreamt that he arose from his bed and walked out into the city. Soon, he found himself in the woods on the city's outskirts.

When dark fell, he was lost. He spent the night in the forest.

The next morning, he wandered through the woods. He saw no sign of a road, nor of another person. He spent that night in the woods, as well.

The next day, he saw no feature that could orient him. He wandered, always finding himself deeper in the woods. But he had to get back to Medzhibozh! The Baal Shem Tov would be waiting for him, at his banquet! He could not keep the holy Baal Shem Tov waiting!

By the last light of day, he saw the figure of a man in the distance. He shouted. The man answered his call. The two of them ran toward each other, meeting in the darkening forest.

"I am so glad to have found you," said Rabbi Gershon. "I have been lost three days. But I have to get back to Medzhibozh! The holy Baal Shem Tov himself is waiting for me!"

"I am in a bigger hurry," said the man. "I am the caretaker for three children in Brody. Their father, a wealthy man, expects me to teach them. I have been lost in these woods for three days. I must find my way back to Brody!"

"Since we are both lost," said Rabbi Gershon, let us journey together in the morning. Perhaps we will find our way to one of our destinations." So they wandered off together.

Later that day, they saw a building in the distance. They ran toward it. As they came closer, they saw how large and grand it was. They recognized it as a yeshiva, an advanced school of Torah study.

As they walked up to the steps, they heard the sounds of Torah study from within. They stopped to listen. What Rabbi Gershon heard pleased him! This was a high level of study!

Inside, they listened as the rosh yeshiva (head of the yeshiva) lectured on the Torah. He was revealing secrets of the Torah neither had ever heard!

When the rosh yeshiva finished speaking, the two men approached him. "We are lost. I must find my way back to Medzhibozh," said Rabbi Gershon.

The man from Brody said, "And I must find my way back to Brody."

The rosh yeshiva looked at them. "Medzhibozh? Brody? I know of no such places."

Both men said, "We just left there three days ago!"

The rosh yeshiva said, "I can only tell you this: There is no other world but this one. I advise you to stay here."

"No! We must keep looking!"

"In that case," said the rosh yeshiva, "Continue on this road. You will find another yeshiva a day's walk from here. Perhaps they can help you."

Late the next day, the two men approached an even larger building. It was magnificent! From within, they heard the sounds of Torah study and stopped to listen. Rabbi Gershon was so pleased with what he heard, he could scarcely rouse himself to enter.

Once inside, they listened to the rosh yeshiva lecturing. He revealed powers hidden in the words of Torah, powers that Rabbi Gershon had never suspected.

After his lecture, they approached him. "We are lost," said Rabbi Gershon. "I must find my way back to Medzhibozh."

The man from Brody was still staring at the passage of Torah the rosh yeshiva had just explained. At last he said, "And I must find my way back to Brody."

The rosh yeshiva looked at them. "Medzhibozh? Brody? I know of no such places."

Rabbi Gershon said, "We just left there four days ago!"

The rosh yeshiva said, "I can only tell you this: There is no other world but this one. I advise you to stay here."

"No! We must keep looking," said Rabbi Gershon. But the man from Brody said nothing.

"There is another yeshiva," said the rosh yeshiva, "a day's walk from here. Perhaps they can help you there."

In the morning, Rabbi Gershon left the yeshiva. But the man from Brody said, "No. The study is so sweet here, I cannot bear to leave it."

Alone, Rabbi Gershon found his way to the third yeshiva. It was a palace! Coming upon it, Rabbi Gershon heard the sound of teachings from within. Even before he was close enough to understand what was said, the sweetness of the sound nearly overcame him.

Inside, he heard the rosh yeshiva speaking. As the rosh yeshiva spoke, Rabbi Gershon saw the Divine Chariot flying through the air.

When the rosh yeshiva had finished, Rabbi Gershon approached him. "I must get back to Medzhibozh. I walked out from there days ago. I met a man from Brody, who was also lost. We came to two yeshivas before we came to yours."

The rosh yeshiva said, "There is no other world but this one."

Rabbi Gershon said, "But I must return! The Baal Shem Tov himself is waiting for me!"

At this mention of the great rabbi's name, the rosh yeshiva looked sharply at Rabbi Gershon. Then he sighed and spoke to his students, "Then bring me the map of all the worlds!"

In a moment, the rosh yeshiva was pouring over an enormous book. After many minutes he looked up from one of its pages and spoke to Rabbi Gershon. "There does seem to be a small world - a mostly corrupt one - where there are two places named Medzhibozh and Brody. But my advice to you is to stay here."

"No," said Rabbi Gershon. "How can I keep the holy Baal Shem Tov waiting?"

At this, the rosh yeshiva pointed to two of his students, saying, "Take him, then." They each grabbed Rabbi Gershon by one of his arms, took him to a door, opened it, and pushed him through it into the darkness.

Rabbi Gershon felt himself falling. He fell and fell, then landed in his own bed.

Opening his eyes, he saw from the clock that his entire dream had lasted merely thirty minutes. In fact, the Baal Shem Tov was just entering his room.

Rabbi Gershon said, "I am so glad to see you! I was lost for three days. In my dream, I was afraid I would miss my banquet!"

"I know," said the Baal Shem Tov. "But I am worred about the man from Brody. What happened to him?"

"He stayed at the second yeshiva."

The Baal Shem Tov grew quiet. "His soul was very great. We needed him in this world. But he chose to stay there."

Rabbi Gershon was silent a long time. At last he said, "I see. So I will be staying here to teach your son?"

The Baal Shem Tov smiled.

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Based on a story in Abraham Heschel, The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov. pp. 59-61. Heschel cites a manuscript in Uman, of R. Isaac Joel Rabinowitz, Admor of Monestrisht.

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