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The Soul of Hope

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The Trials of Eliezer

Adapted by Doug Lipman

For the Jews of Eastern Europe, the crisis had lasted for decades.

A law had been passed saying that Jews could not own certain kinds of property, then another law saying that Jews could not work in certain professions, then another saying that Jews could not live in certain places. And then another and another.

There had been a violent uprising, in the wake of which myriads of Jews had been killed and hundreds of communities had been completely destroyed.

Every year, it seemed, smaller and smaller excuses had been required for violence against Jews.

The year was 1690.

In response to this on-going crisis, in one little European village, one man, named Eliezer, prayed:

"Master of the Universe, I'm not the one who can pray most correctly. I am not the most eloquent. I am not even the most humble. But I believe I know one thing: we can survive even this, if we do not despair. Please, give us something to make it easier to hope."

In response to that prayer, in heaven the archangel Gabriel strode to the Palace of Souls.

Here, all souls - created when the world was created - waited their turns to be clothed in bone and vein and sinew. Each of them shone: some like embers, some like candles, some like stars.

Now the archangel Gabriel cradled his hand around a soul whose light shone from one end of heaven to the other. Tenderly, he removed it from the Palace of Souls.

When the angels saw what luminous soul was about to be born, they rejoiced. They danced, they sang!

Their rejoicing was heard by Samael, the angel who had been chosen by God to play the role of the Adversary. The Adversary, alone among the heavenly court, has the task of enriching our following of God by presenting us with another choice. The old word for "the Adversary" is "the Satan."

The Adversary approached the throne of God, took up his ancient stance before the Divine Presence, and raised a finger as though to point at God. Then, with all the weary effort of centuries, he spoke:

"A soul like this confers a very great honor on its parents," he began. "I admit that the mother, Hannah, deserves it fully."

Then his voice grew indignant. "But the father, Eliezer, has not even been tested!"

There was no rebuttal from the heavenly court.

That is why it was, that the next day, when Eliezer was walking in the forest near his village, he was set upon by brigands. He was bound, he was gagged, a hood was placed over his head. He was thrown into the back of a wagon. From time to time, the wagon stopped jolting over the rutted roads. Then Eliezer would feel the bodies of other captives being piled on top of him. At last, he was carted to a seaport, put in the hold of a ship, carried across the ocean, and sold as a slave.

As a slave in a distant land, he said to himself, "If I ask the whole world to hope, then even as a slave I will not despair."

He kept his integrity and his piety.

That is why it was, that for a second time the archangel Gabriel strode to the Palace of Souls and cradled his hand around that luminous soul.

Before Gabriel could move the soul from its place of waiting, the Adversary approached the throne of God. "My concern is only for justice," he insisted. "To be a Jew in Eastern Europe is so difficult that slavery is scarcely a proper test!"

Again, there was no rebuttal possible.

That is why it was, that the very next day Eliezer's owner sold him to the prime minister of that land. Over the weeks and months that followed, his master discovered Eliezer to be not only a competent servant, but also an excellent listener.

An army invaded that land. The capital city was laid siege. The prime minister confided to his slave that he felt despair, for he had no idea how to break the siege.

Eliezer asked to be taken to the battlements on the city's wall. Looking over the wind-blown tents of the enemy soldiers, Eliezer said, "I have a plan."

That evening, the prime minister assembled all the citizens of the city and led them in song. Puzzled at first, in time the citizens began to sing fervently. They sang of their homes, their families, their land.

In their drafty tents, far from home, the invading soldiers heard the singing of the entire city. After the seventh evening, when the song rang out confidently, far into the night, the enemy soldiers lifted the siege and returned home.

The king was delighted. "In all your years as my prime minister, you have never before shown such cleverness, such ingenuity." The king narrowed his eyes. "Who helped you?"

The prime minister told the truth.

And so, just as Pharaoh, in the Bible, elevated Joseph, so this king made Eliezer his chief adviser. "Within the boundaries of my kingdom, Eliezer, anything you wish is yours."

Eliezer was offered jewels, gold, and fine clothes. He was offered command of the army, his own households, his own lands to farm, and stables of prize horses. He was offered food, drink, and slaves.

Eliezer thought to himself, "If I could hope when I was a slave, surely I can still hope now, as the adviser to a king." And so those things offered to him which might have misled him, he used wisely. And those things which might have destroyed him, he refused.

And that is why, in heaven, Gabriel strode once again to the Palace of Souls and cradled his hand around that so luminous soul.

But before Gabriel could remove the soul from its place of waiting, the Adversary approached the throne of God.

He stood like the weary voice of reason itself. "My concern now is only for the good of the child. I acknowledge that this Eliezer has passed the test of adversity - and of prosperity, the greater test."

His tone was that of one who brings up the obvious facts that have been ignored by all in their enthusiasm. Pointing toward the palace of souls, he continued, "But a Great Soul can be rebellious. How will it fare in Eliezer's home? What if it does not obey the laws of the Torah? How would this Eliezer treat a Jew like that?"

Yet again, no answer was possible.

That is why it was, that the next day, the king called Eliezer to him. "Over these past years you have served this kingdom with more passion and intelligence than most who were born here. Yet I sense that you still yearn for your own land. It pains me to lose you, but I offer you your freedom. If it is your wish, you may leave." Looking his chief adviser in the eye, the king knew that Eliezer's mind had already begun its journey home.

Returning to his old life, Eliezer became even more enthusiastic in his observance of the Jewish law. For example, instead of merely giving hospitality when asked, he hired watchers to stand at the entrances to his little village - so that, if there was a traveler in need, he could offer it before the traveler had to ask.

One Friday evening, Eliezer and Hannah were just about to speak the blessing over their Sabbath dinner.

Suddenly, the door to their little house was flung open. A crudely dressed man carrying a heavy sack entered and threw down his dusty burden - he was both traveling and working on the Sabbath! He sat down at the table, and without even a greeting, he began to help himself to their Sabbath meal.

Eliezer watched this rude stranger eat. He knew that if a rebuke can be heard, one must give it - but if a rebuke cannot be heard, there is no way to give it in the spirit of the love of God. So Eliezer said, "Welcome, stranger. Eat your fill; stay the night."

And in the morning - still the Sabbath - when this crude man shouldered his burden to resume his journey, Eliezer said, "Wait!"

Eliezer smiled at his guest. "I wish to give you my blessing. May your journey be even more profitable than you imagine."

That is why it was, that when the archangel Gabriel cradled his hand one more time around that so luminous soul, the Angel chosen by God for the role of the Adversary - Samael, known as the Satan - was silent.

And that is how it was that Israel ben Eliezer - Israel, the son of Eliezer, known to us as the Baal Shem Tov - emerged, hungry and crying, into our world.

This is the opening of Doug Lipman's epic Hasidic tale, The Soul of Hope.



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