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The Blood Brothers

adapted by Doug Lipman

One day, an expensive carriage pulled up outside the home of the Baal Shem Tov. The owner emerged, carrying a velvet sack that clinked as he walked to the door.

When the visitor entered the study of the Baal Shem Tov, the holy mystic said heartily, "Welcome!" The visitor mumbled a greeting, then walked silently to the Baal Shem Tov's desk and set the bulging velvet sack on it. He turned to leave.

The Baal Shem Tov said, "Not so fast. Please sit down." Awkwardly, the visitor complied. The Baal Shem Tov looked carefully at his visitor. "So many people have visited me over the years, seeking advice or a blessing. Yet you, my own cousin, have never come. What brings you?"

The cousin did not look up. "I have heard of your good work. You help people who are suffering. I just thought I should give you these gold coins. To support your work. With the poor."

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his cousin for a long time. At last, the cousin looked up into the eyes of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov's gaze seemed to look into the depths of his soul. Quickly, the cousin looked away.

The Baal Shem Tov lit a candle on his desk. When the flame was burning strong and bright in the small study, he said, "I will tell you a story." Then the Baal Shem Tov began:

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Once there were two boys who became fast friends. They played together, studied together and treated each other like brothers.

One day, they decided to become blood brothers. They pricked their own fingers and mixed their blood. They vowed, "Whatever success comes to one of us will belong to both. Whatever pain comes to one of us will be felt by both."

When the time came, they celebrated their Bar Mitzvah's together. In fact, they each got married on the same day.

But one of the blood brothers married a young woman from a distant village, and went to live with her family. Tearfully, the two friends parted.

At first, they wrote each other every day. As they settled into their new lives, their letters became less frequent. In time, they stopped writing altogether.

One day, after many years, the blood brother who had stayed behind received a letter from the other. It said, "I have lost my family and all my wealth. I have nothing."

Immediately, he penned a reply: "My coachman will leave tomorrow, to bring you back here as my guest. I will take care of everything."

Two weeks later, the coach returned. The blood brother who had stayed behind escorted his oldest friend into his house. First, he showed him a room decorated with beautiful wooden objects, all of the finest workmanship. Then he showed him a room filled with sculpture made of silver. Finally, he showed him a room filled with masterfully worked gold. "All success and suffering belongs to us both," he said. "Therefore, I will sell half of my possessions, and give the proceeds to you. That way, you will be able to start your business life again."

A few years later, the blood brother who had stayed behind experienced a series of setbacks. First, he lost his family when his house burned to the ground. Then the ships from which he made his wealth were lost at sea. His attempts to begin new businesses all failed. Within a year, he had lost everything except a few gold coins.

Having nowhere else to turn, he wrote to his blood brother in the distant city, to whom he had given half his wealth: "I have lost my family and all my wealth. I have nothing." Then he waited, confidently, expecting a coach to arrive within the week.

After two weeks, he wrote again. "A week from now, I am beginning a journey to visit you. I will be traveling on foot." Another week passed with no reply. At last he wrote, "I leave today, carrying my last gold coin."

Each day, he expected to see his blood brother's carriage drive up to him on the road. After a week, he had no money left for lodging or food. He begged for food and slept in doorways. He thought, "Surely, my blood brother's carriage must have taken a different route. When I arrive in his village, he will welcome me and help me recover from the distress into which I have fallen."

By the time he reached the distant city, he was haggard and weakened from weeks of travel in the rain and cold. His clothes were ragged and dirty. Asking directions to his blood brother's house, he was warned, "Do not go there. Beggars are not welcomed."

Nonetheless, he went to the address of his blood brother. Arriving at night, he saw a high brick wall surrounding a tall tower. The tower was dark, except for a single lit window near the top.

He knocked at the heavy wooden door. No one answered. He knocked again. At last, a tiny window in the door opened. A servant said, "No beggars are tolerated here. Take your poverty elsewhere!"

The blood brother said, "Tell your master that his blood brother has arrived." The servant closed the window and began to climb the many steps into the tower, to the room where his master sat day after day, managing his many accounts.

When the owner of the tower heard the message, he thought to himself, "If I see him, I will be overcome by my love for him. I will do what he did - I will give him half of my wealth. But then the same thing may happen to me that happened to him - I will lose everything and become poor again. I cannot bear the pain of that poverty! Not again!"

Turning away, he said to the servant, "Tell him to leave."

Every day after that, the blood brother in the street begged for food by day and slept in his wealthy friend's doorway by night. Every morning, he knocked on the door. "Let me have even one word with him," he told the servant. Every day, he was turned away.

At last, realizing he was deathly ill, he thought, "It would be a disgrace upon him if I were to die in his doorway." With the last of his strength, he dragged himself to an open field. There, he died.

As it happened, the wealthy blood brother caught a fever and died within a few weeks. So the two souls appeared before the Heavenly Tribunal at the same time.

It took the administering angels only a short time to admit the one who had died poor to Paradise - and to deny Paradise to the one who had died rich. But the poor one, hearing the sentence, objected. "All successes belong to both of us. Therefore, I will not enter Paradise without him."

This created a commotion in the Heavenly Court. At last, a compromise was reached. The angel in charge said, "You shall both be reborn. The one who died poor shall be reborn poor. The one who died rich shall be reborn rich. In this lifetime, the wealthy one will have a single chance to give to the poor one. If you give something - no matter how little - then you will both enter Paradise. But if you refuse, the decree made today will stand."

All happened as the angels predicted. The blood brother who died rich was born to a fabulously wealthy family, and knew every advantage.

The blood brother who died poor was born to a family of beggars. While he was small, his presence was a benefit to his mother, who could plead on behalf of her helpless child. But as the boy began to mature, people refused to give. "Why doesn't your son get work?" Reluctantly, his mother told him to find his own way in the world.

He became a wandering beggar, working when possible, but mostly forced to beg, then travel on. After many years, his wanderings brought him to the town where, unknown to him, the other blood brother was living.

Entering that town, the beggar was seized with a sense of an important task he needed to complete there - but he had no idea what his task was. So he lingered even after the sources of charity for travelers had begun to turn him away. Day after day, he begged on the streets, wandering from one part of the city to the next.

One day, he came to a vast estate, surrounded by a spiked fence. An urgency came over him: he MUST get alms at this estate.

He knocked at the front gate. A liveried servant spoke through the bars, "No beggars are welcomed here. In fact, I have orders to turn the dogs on you if you do not leave at once."

But the beggar had a sense of importance about him, saying, "Please, let me have just a moment inside. It is more urgent than alms!" In exchange for swearing not to reveal who had let him in, the servant directed him to a hole in the outer wall that led to an enclosed garden.

Once inside, the beggar waited. At last, a man his own age entered the patio. "Please," said the beggar as he approached him, "give me something - even a crumb!"

The wealthy man, shocked by the beggar's presence and forcefulness, looked into the beggar's eyes. There, he saw the pain of the beggar's life. He perceived the ease of his own life, and the injustice of the difference. He was frightened and dismayed.

The beggar saw his fear. He reached out to grab him. "Please, just give me something!"

The wealthy man grabbed the importunate beggar by the shoulders. He pushed him backwards. "No! I cannot! I cannot!" The beggar tripped. He fell. His head struck a stone. He died there, in the wealthy man's garden.

The wealthy man concealed the corpse. Then he tried to buy forgiveness for this accidental murder, without revealing what he had done.

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The candle on the desk of the Baal Shem Tov had burned to a stub. The Baal Shem Tov stopped his story and looked at his cousin.

The cousin was weeping. "How did you know all this? Hearing your story, I felt, this is the story of my life! I didn't mean to harm him!" He sobbed like a child. "What must I do now?"

The Baal Shem Tov stood, picked up the bag of gold coins from his desk, and walked over to the sobbing man. "There is only one course of action that may avert the decree passed when your previous lifetime ended. It may not succeed. But if you are to have any chance of success, here is what you must do."

The Baal Shem Tov handed his cousin the bag of coins. He said, "Leave your wealthy life. Give instructions to have your estate made into a haven for the poor. Take these coins into the world, giving them to any who are in need. Perhaps, after many years of this, your prayers will be heard."

The wealthy cousin wept a long time. Then he arose and went outside. He spoke a long while with the driver of his carriage.

The carriage drove off without him. Then the wealthy man, carrying the bag of coins, walked off in the opposite direction. He walked resolutely and a little awkwardly, like someone unsure of himself but determined - like someone entering a new, frightening, yet somehow hopeful life.

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Note: This is the first Hasidic story I ever heard. It was told by Eric Chaim Klein. Some of the details of this version are his, having stayed alive in my imagination for over 25 years.



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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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