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The Forgotten Story
adapted by Doug Lipman
Once, the Baal Shem Tov came to his disciples and said, "This is the last year of my life. Each of you will have a role to fill after I'm gone." He pointed to one of his followers, saying, "You will be the leader of the community here." To another he said, "You will explain the teachings to those who come here and ask." One by one, he told each of the disciples what they should do.
The last he turned to was Reb Yaakov. "You will be the storyteller. You will travel from village to village and spread the stories of what has happened here among us."
Reb Yaakov cried out, "Holy master, I would do whatever you want, but please! Give a different task to me! As a storyteller, I would be poor! And travelling from place to place, I would never have a home or a family."
The Baal Shem Tov replied, "As for your poverty, perhaps you will be surprised. And as for settling down, one day there will be a sign - and then you will know that your job is completed and you may cease your wandering."
It all happened as the Baal Shem Tov said. Within the year, he had died. One by one, the disciples began to fulfill the roles he had given them.
The last to start his new task was Reb Yaakov. Sadly, he said goodbye to all those in that community where he had lived so long. Then he left, alone - to go from place to place spreading the stories.
But when he arrived in a village, and announced that he had stories to tell of the Baal Shem Tov, he found that the word of the Baal Shem Tov had preceded him, and people were hungry to hear these stories. And after the stories were told, people were happy to feed him and give him lodging. "Reb Yaakov," a villager might say, "That coat you are wearing is threadbare. Please, allow me to give you this new one!"
One day, Reb Yaakov heard word that in a distant village there was a rich man who so loved stories of the Baal Shem Tov, that anyone who told him a story of the Baal Shem Tov would be given a gold coin!
Reb Yaakov thought, "I know thousands of stories of the Baal Shem Tov! I will tell them all. I will be rich!"
And so, working his way from village to village by telling stories, Yaakov came at last to that rich man's home.
He was greeted enthusiastically. "You not only know stories of the Baal Shem Tov, but you knew him personally? Welcome! In your honor, tonight I will give a banquet. I will invite all the people of this village, and they will share in your stories."
That evening, Yaakov sat at the head of a long table. When the dinner was done, his host turned to him. Yaakov stood up to tell a story.
For the first time, Yaakov could not think of a single story of the Baal Shem Tov. Unaccustomed to being tongue-tied, at last he said, "Dear host, perhaps someone else should tell first."
A villager stood and told a story of the Baal Shem Tov. Yaakov had told that same story many times - in fact, he had been there when it happened. Yet the story did not make him think of others. Listening to the story, every word seemed new.
He tried to do what he always did whenever he was troubled. He tried to imagine his master's face, smiling at him. But this time, he could see only the outline of the Baal Shem Tov's head - with no features.
"Gracious host, perhaps someone else should go next."
After four more stories told by the assembled villagers, Reb Yaakov said, "I feel like an impostor. You must allow me to leave!"
"Please, Reb Yaakov. Stay here tonight. Perhaps in the morning you will remember a story."
But in the morning it was the same, and Yaakov wished to leave. His host pleaded, "I beg of you! Stay the day. You don't know what your presence here means to me."
The next morning, Yaakov could still remember nothing. Again, his host insisted that he stay. But on the third morning, Yaakov said, "No, I cannot continue to accept your hospitality without giving a story in return. I must go."
"Then please, Reb Yaakov, allow my coachman to take you on the first leg of your journey."
Soon, Yaakov sat in unaccustomed splendor ... and in unaccustomed humiliation. After four hours of travelling in the coach, suddenly a story of the Baal Shem Tov emerged in Yaakov's mind. "Driver! Driver! Turn around quickly!" He told the story over and over to himself, so that he wouldn't forget it.
Standing outside the wealthy man's door, Yaakov began to speak. "Kind host, I have remembered a story. No, we will not wait for the banquet. I will tell you now, lest I forget.
"It is a very strange story. I do not even know the end of it. But I can promise you that you will not have heard it from anyone else. For only my master and I were there. And I have never thought of it from the day it happened until this day."
Yaakov paused a moment, then began his part of the story.
One night, the Baal Shem Tov woke me from my bed and asked me to come with him on a journey. This was not unusual. But this time, he asked only me. I sat facing him in his carriage. He drew the curtains over the windows, and I could hear the wheels rattling over the cobblestones. Then I could not hear that sound, but only the wind rushing by. And then, after hours, I heard again the sound of wheels on pavement.
When Yaakov looked at the wealthy man, there were tears streaming down the man's face.
When the Baal Shem Tov drew open the curtains, I could see that we were in a land completely unfamiliar to me. The buildings were of an unusual architecture.
I could see, too, a great square, with tens of thousands of people gathered. But our carriage continued beyond it to a small, winding alley, where every door and every window was barred.
"Yaakov, this is the street of the Jews."
And it was here that the carriage stopped. My master got out and knocked on one of these boarded-up doors. "It is I, Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov. Open the door!"
Then we heard whispers. "Go away! Are you mad?" But at last the door opened part way, and we were ushered up a narrow stairway. Once on the second floor, we saw only a boarded-up window, but my master strode to the window and threw open the shutters.
Our host became agitated once again. "Do you not know? This is the day of the year they will kill the first Jew they see. We will be murdered!"
"It is safe." My master pointed out over the square.
I could see the crowd. I could see a great dais at the far end - and on it, those who must have been the priests of that country. And in the center, rising to address the crowd, was the one who must have been their high priest.
The Baal Shem Tov turned to me. "Yaakov, bring me that man."
Our host cried out, "Don"t send him there! He"ll be killed!"
But if my master asked me to walk on fire, I would do it.
I went out onto the square. The people were standing shoulder to shoulder. But somehow, a pathway opened for me. Soon, I stood looking up at that high priest.
I spoke to him in my language: "My master, Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov, wishes to speak to you."
And to my amazement, the high priest spoke back to me in my own language. "Tell him I will be there in two hours."
For the second time, a pathway opened for me through the town square. But my master was furious. "Tell him to come now!"
For the third time, I made my way across that square. When the high priest saw me coming, he interrupted his speech - and he followed me back to the Baal Shem Tov. The two of them went into a room, and they talked for three hours.
Kind host, that is all I can tell you of that story!
"Yaakov, I can tell you the rest of that story. For I was that high priest." And now the wealthy man began his story:
You see, my parents raised me as a Jew, and they raised me well. But when I was a young man, something came over me and I converted to the religion of that distant country. I found that by speaking ill of my people, the Jews, I rose in my new countrymen's esteem. In time, I began to speak with hatred of the Jews. And they made me a priest.
Within the week, the rich man had sold his home. He gave half of the value to Reb Yaakov.
Then, one year, I had the idea for this annual festival, during which we would sacrifice the first Jew who we saw. Then they made me the high priest.
Every year, I stood and I addressed the crowd. I incited them to murder. I felt the power of my words.
Then, one night, I had a dream. I dreamt of a room with a long table. And seated around it were people I knew, in my dream, to be my ancestors. They were looking at a thin, dried object. In my dream, I knew this object to be a human soul.
One of my ancestors spoke, "Is it not clear that the force of evil has completely overcome the force of good in this soul?"
Then one man spoke who - I knew in my dream - was not one of my ancestors, but was the Baal Shem Tov. He stepped forward and touched his finger to that dried soul. Where his finger touched it, it became moist. Slowly, the moisture began to spread. "Is it not clear," he said, "that there is still hope for that human soul?"
When I woke, I knew that the dream meant that one day the Baal Shem Tov would intercede for me. And so, Yaakov, when you came across the square to me that day, I knew I must go with you. But I wished to feel the power one more time.
When you came the second time, I knew I could put it off no longer. In that little room above the square, I asked the Baal Shem Tov, "What must I do to be redeemed?"
"Your sin is very great. There is no guarantee that your prayers can ever be answered. But if they are ever to be heard, you must do what I say. Sell all your property. Divide the proceeds into three parts. With one part of that money, buy your freedom from your obligations as high priest. The second third you must immediately give to those around you in need. With the third portion, you must go to some distant village and set up a home where it is known that anyone may come and be given food, shelter, and clothing. Perhaps, after years, you will be made whole again."
"Holy master, how will I ever know if my prayers have been heard?"
"You will know that your prayers have reached the Gates of Heaven the day that some one ... tells you your own story."
And so, Yaakov, when you came to my home, I recognized you as the messenger who had come across the square so many years before. I knew that you alone could tell me that story. And I took it as a sign that my prayers had been answered.
When you could think of no story to tell, I was certain that my prayers would never be answered. But now ... you have told me the story I have waited all these years to hear.
Yaakov took that money and bought his own home. He started his own family. He stopped his life of wandering - just as his master, the Baal Shem Tov, had always intended.
Adapted from the version on the audiocassette, The Forgotten Story, by Doug Lipman.
Text version, copyright 1998.
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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003