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The Last Temptation of a Kabbalist

by Eliahu Klein


A kabbalist, hidden in a forest, sells his soul to a "gentleman rabbi," who turns out to be the devil incarnate. In order to keep up with his side of the bargain, the kabbalist ends up murdering people with the power of magical Kabbalah. This is a tragic morality tale about the misuse of sacred wisdom for one's selfish motives.

Unlike the legend of Dr. Faustus, who sells his soul to Mephistopheles and ends up damning himself, this story has a happy ending. In the "Last Temptation" the kabbalist turned murderer receives a postmortem tikkun from the Baal Shem Tov many years after his death.

In Chasidic and kabbalistic tradition, a tikkun is not bound by time and space. According to the eternal law of gilgul, souls must return to earth again and again until they have become whole and no longer need to return to planetary existence.

There is a crucial turning point that occurs in the "Last Temptation." The kabbalist, after completing a yearly account of the soul, realizes that due to certain circumstances, he has lost ground in the study of Torah and falls into despair. At this moment, the devil, who appears as a rabbi, catches him off-guard and seduces him into a series of events that culminates in self-destruction.

In his desperate moment the kabbalist could have responded to his predicament in another fashion. He could have turned to the Baal Shem's radical positivist transformational methods in dealing with obstruction that arise when one journeys upon the spiritual path of Torah.

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    It happens, the evil inclination convinces one that he has committed a great sin, even though the sin in question was but a stringency or, perhaps, not even a sin at all. The intention of the inclination is one pointed to cause this person to fall into despair, resulting in his ceasing study of Torah.

    Every person needs to see through these convincing mind patterns and to learn to respond to this insidious voice with this affirmation, "I am not concerned with what you claim to be an important transgression. Your intention is to take me away from the precious study of Torah. You speak lies! I refuse to consider what you have to say! Even if I have committed a transgression I will give my creator greater delight in refusing to let this thought bring me to despair. Rather than letting this create a chasm between sacred work and myself I will use this moment to serve God in joy!"

    For this is an important spiritual principle: "The intention of my service is not for myself, but to cause a pleasing spirit for the Blessed One. Even if I did not concern myself with this stringency you have now made me aware of, I don't believe the Blessed One will mind, since my sole intention is not to be distracted from serving God. How could I be distracted even for one moment?

    This is a great principle in serving God: to guard oneself from despair with all one's capacities. Sources:

    • Tzavaat Rivash, no.44:
      Tzavot HaRivash (The Testament of the Baal Shem Tov). Brooklyn: Kehot, 1975.
    • and Or HaEmet, p. 103b.

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The Last Temptation of a Kabbalist

Once, many devoted chasidim gathered in Medzibezh to be with the Baal Shem Tov. The master impulsively asked his soul mate, Chanah, to prepare a feast, for this was an auspicious moment. Now this was truly extraordinary, because this evening was not a holy day, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a brit, or even a Rosh Chodesh, the day of the new moon when it is customary for the Baal Shem to sanctify the day with a festive meal.

"Why is tonight different from all other nights?" inquired Rebbitzin Chanah.

"When all the guests have gathered, I will explain everything." Rabbi Israel winked at Chanah and smiled one of his mysterious smiles, pregnant with meaning.

The victuals were placed on the table. The candles were lit. The chasidim and guests of the rabbi entered and sat wherever they could.

The Baal Shem tilted his head back. His eyes were bulging, and his hands grasped the edges of the table. He turned to Reb David Furkash and asked him to begin a melody. Soon everyone was singing. The Baal Shem closed his eyes and remained in this state for the next fifteen minutes. Reb David came to the end of a long seven-part melody, which had put everyone in a meditative trance. There were a few minutes of silence. The Baal Shem opened his eyes, looked around the room until he had glanced at everyone for at least a second, and then began to speak.

"Listen, friends! Every hundred years the Heavens send down a soul that is sublime and wondrous. This soul is given all the secrets of the Torah. When this soul descends into the earthly realms, she is the embodiment of perfection. This does not mean that free will is taken away. On the contrary, a soul such as this still has to go through all the travails of existence. So listen to what happened many hundreds of years ago:

A soul was sent down inside a man who lived in dire poverty at the edge of a city. He had watery blue, beady eyes and a scraggly, dusty red beard that framed his long tired-looking face. He was such a genius that he just couldn't possibly have a conversation with anyone, so he moved with his wife to a ramshackle log cabin where she foraged in the woods for rare herbs that were sold in the village market. His name was Rakmiel and his soul mate's was Tovil.

This Rakmiel had the good fortune to have inherited thousands of holy books from his ancestors, so there was no need to go anywhere at all. On one hand they lived a miserable existence, but spiritually they were both in Heaven, because he could study Torah day and night, and Tovil knew she was supporting a veltz gaon - a world-class Torah scholar. Besides, she also had 10,000 kilometers of wilderness all to herself!

Tovil knew her husband was a great saint and scholar. She could see Hebrew letters around his forehead and at the edge of his beard, hovering over him during the day. At night these letters became primordial flickering flames illuminating their dwelling and protecting them from evil spirits.

Rakmiel the Recluse had a custom whereby once a year he would go into the wilderness to account for his soul. He would delve into those dark recesses no one wants to see - those dark shadowy caves of the conscience one wishes to forget. Rakmiel would methodically remind himself of everything he had done - his thoughts, feelings, and actions. He reviewed all his chiddushim, new insights on the different parts of the Torah, and then he would step back inside himself to see if he had progressed in his holy work or, God forbid, the opposite. When he remembered something lacking in himself he began crying, and prayed to the Almighty, All-forgiving One to absolve him from any negative or evil thing he had committed. He would fast from dawn to dusk, crying bitterly all day, flagellating himself with thorny branches until the sun disappeared through the trees and he felt purified and cleansed. Even though he returned to Tovil completely exhausted, his face beamed from the rigors of ascetic purification. Rakmiel had vowed to double his amount of study and speak more kindly with his devoted partner.

The total, unquestioning devotion of Tovil to her husband and the extreme self-sacrifice for the study of Torah astonished the angels of the Heavenly Realm. There was a nearly unanimous agreement throughout the Heavens that this man was truly one of the thirty-six righteous men of his generation, and that Tovil was definitely one of the thirty-six righteous women of the world. Everyone agreed except one. Of course there's always one angel who will dissent. Well, this angel is actually assigned by the Good Creator to do exactly that.

"Listen! All this talk is nonsense!" roared the Adversary. "How can you consider such a man truly holy? It's all very impressive that he studies Torah day and night, but he's just not of this world!"

The Heavenly Court began murmuring. "What is with the Adversary? Can't he accept that there really are truly holy beings who serve God from the minute they're born until their last breath? And it is these individuals who sustain the generation and send waves of delight to the Creator and the hosts of Heaven!"

"Well, come now, my cosmic colleagues," responded the Adversary. "Give me a chance to state my view. How can this man truly be holy if he is not a part of the day-to-day existence with ordinary human beings? Isn't this the true test of saintliness - to interact with simple people, to imbue the mundane with the sacred? I bet if this Rakmiel was forced to earn a living, if he had to go out and deal with business people, he would forget to study Torah and he would forget God!"

The Adversary's worlds caused galactic shudders to reverberate throughout the Heavenly Realm. An uncomfortable silence ensued. This angel was correct - all earthly saints were tested.

Power was swiftly give to the Adversary to descend to earth and test the reclusive saint.

The sly angel took on the guise of a distinguished elder rabbi and went to visit Rakmiel the Recluse. However, when he arrived at the doorway, he could not continue. The power of holiness surrounding the hut refused to allow the angel dressed like a rabbi to even knock on the door! What was he to do? The sly angel-rabbi looked around the wooded area and noticed half a kilometer away the perfect situation. Down the road lived a very devout but extremely impoverished Jewish family. The husband's only means of support was to dig up the dry earth and haul it off to down where he would sell it to people to cover their floors. This is how he made a living! Can you imagine that? At this moment, Reb Beryl the Digger, was looking at his wife, Babshi, who was about to give birth to their eighth child, and she cried because they didn't even have straw to cover their floor or enough money to call a mid-wife. All he could do was open his prayer book and chant the psalms of King David with such fervor that he barely heard his wife crying, let alone his children.

Every year this happened. He would pray to God for his wife to have a safe birthing and, magically enough, his wife would give birth to a healthy babe. But this time, due to the spiteful will of the sly angel, Babshi was three days into labor and she couldn't give birth. Throughout the third day into the night, Reb Beryl raised his voice and, panic-stricken, cried to God to send an immediate salvation to his wife, to please have compassion on her and the soul that wanted to emerge into this world.

Midnight came and Babshi felt she was about to give birth. She shouted to her husband to get some light. He swiftly ran out into the night and started jogging down the road. "Am I crazy?" he started thinking. "Why, no one lives around here! Why am I running around these woods in the middle of the night looking for a candle?"

Suddenly he saw in the distance a light coming from a house. He ran toward the house, opened the door, grabbed the candle on the table and was about to run out the door when he noticed a Jew sitting near the fireplace studying Torah. It seemed to Beryl that this man was one of the thirty-six hidden saints. And he remembered the dictum of the sages: "If someone is sick, go to a sage and beseech him to pray in the name of compassion." So, before he was about to run back to his wife, he turned to Rakmiel.

"Please, Holy Rabbi, I beg of you! My wife is having a hard labor. Pray for her so she'll give birth soon without suffering."

Rakmiel kept sitting and looked at this man who had just broken into his house for a candle.

"My dear Jewish brother," said Rakmiel calmly, "what makes you think that you've come to the right place? I'm just a simple poor Jew. It just so happened that I wasn't able to sleep tonight so I took out a sefer to read until I fall asleep. To be honest with you, I barely know what I'm reading!"

Beryl looked at him with disbelief. "No! No, No!" he retorted. "Why is it, when I stay up at night, I never even glance at a holy book? You must be a holy man who doesn't want anyone to know your real identity. I'm not leaving until you bless my wife with a safe labor."

Rakmiel was trembling within. Was this man sent as a test of his spiritual austerities? Who was he, Rakmiel, anyway, to bless someone? He decided to remain silent. Reb Beryl was getting impatient.

"Listen," said Beryl, "if you really don't know what you're reading anyhow, maybe the book will bring me luck."

He went over to the table and grabbed the holy book. Rakmiel jumped up and wanted to pull it away, but Beryl the Digger was much more powerful than the ascetic kabbalist. When Rakmiel saw that he couldn't budge his fellow and besides was wasting time that could have been used for the study of Torah, he quickly blessed the man's wife for a speedy and safe birth. Beryl gave the rabbi back his book, the rabbi returned to his studies, and Beryl ran off into the night, protecting the candle as he ran through the dense and dark woods.

Through the sly designs of the adversary angel, Beryl's wife Babshi, gave birth at the exact moment Rakmiel muttered the blessing. Reb Beryl was overjoyed. His wife had given birth to a baby boy, and the mother and son were healthy. He realized that the reclusive rabbi's blessing had worked. He ran into town the next morning and went to the shtiebel to announce the birth of a boy.

He then proclaimed ecstatically, "Everybody should know, there's a tzaddik, a saint, hidden in the forest. How do I know? Because he just blessed my wife, who was in labor for three days. I thought she was going to die until I went to this holy man and as soon as he blessed my wife, she gave birth to a healthy child! Isn't that unbelievable?! We need a rabbi for the town. Why don't we hire thistzaddik? I'm sure his presence would be a blessing for everyone."

No one seemed impressed with Reb Beryl.

"Beryl, go back to your digging," they said. "So what if someone blessed you? You were lucky. Just because someone blessed you doesn't mean he automatically becomes the rabbi of our town. Mazel tov, Beryl! So when is the brit?"

But some of the villagers decided to find out for themselves about the miracle rabbi. When the Heavenly Adversary saw that people were coming to be blessed by Reb Rakmiel, the angel decided to manifest similar situations and see what would happen.

Another man whose wife was going through an exhausting labor recalled his friend Beryl's claims about this hidden saint in the woods. He, too, in his moment of despair and frustration, ran to Rakmiel's little house, grabbed a holy book from the table, and refused to give it back unless the rabbi blessed his wife with a safe birthing. Rakmiel realizing that he had no choice, blessed her, and sure enough the mother gave birth with no complications. This poor Jew ran into the streets of town proclaiming Rakmiel the Kabbalist as a miracle worker and urged everyone he met to hire the hidden saint as the town rabbi. People stared at him incredulously.

"There are many idiots in the world who believe anything," said the townspeople, "who build mountains out of molehills, who run out into the streets as soon as anything good happens to them, proclaiming it a miracle! What nonsense is this?!"

Then they strutted away haughtily.

Another time the same situation repeated itself. A poor Jew whose wife was practically dying in labor prayed to God to send a miracle. He saw no miracle was forthcoming, so he remembered the forest rabbi. He ran to him. When Rakmiel saw him from the distance he thought to himself, "Oh no! Another seeker of blessings!" When the Jew arrived at the hovel he barely had time to cry, "Bless my wife, Rabbi! She's dying in labor!" before the rabbi quickly responded, "Go back home. Your wife will be all right! I assure you in the Name of the Creator Who gave birth to creation!"

He went back home. Sure enough his wife gave birth to a healthy baby and everything turned out well. The village Jew saw this was obviously a great miracle, so he too ran out into the village square telling everyone the great miracle that had just occurred.

This time the people listened. They spoke among themselves. "This is the third time we have heard this story. Therefore, it is established - surely this man is a saint. This rabbi must be on the level. As it is said, 'A saint decrees and the Holy One, blessed be He, fulfills the saints words.'"

And then the people really came. They came from all directions. They came from towns, villages, cities. They came from the farms, the woods, and the mountains. Everybody wanted a blessing from the saint.

Rakmiel the Kabbalist thought this was ridiculous. All these people were disturbing him from his highly important, crucial Torah studies, but what could he do? No matter how much he tried to shoo people away, they always came back, determined to receive a blessing from an authentic miracle worker. The sly, devilish angel had placed the quality of immovable obstinacy in the people. They would not leave the rabbi until he blessed them.

Rakmiel was tortured inside. This situation confused him. He had no place to escape to. His annual day of judgement was coming and he was terrified to look inside himself. He saw that every day he had less time for Torah. Dusk came and Rakmiel broke down in tears, not knowing how to get out of this quagmire.

The day of judgment arrived. Rakmiel walked deep into the woods. He began methodically to go through the year, day by day, to see objectively what he had accomplished. Sure enough, he didn't have to go too far inside to figure out that the past year was dismally spent. He had no time at all to pray according to the meditations of Rabbi Isaac Luria. The only time he had to pray according to the path of sacred intentions and holy unifications was on the Shabbat, when people couldn't travel to him, However, during the rest of the week he could barely open up the Zohar or a page from the Etz Chaim, when some brokenhearted Jew would show up and beg to be blessed. How could he refuse the request of such a person? Nevertheless, he had fallen in his path. He started crying and wondered despondently what to do.

Suddenly the Adversary appeared to him in the guise of a rabbi dressed in a distinguished manner. "I heard you crying and decided to come and see if I could help you in any way. I felt you were going to cry yourself to death, but how could you do that? Doesn't it say in our scriptures, 'Someone who takes their own life loses their share in the next world?' Share with me your pain and confusion, and perhaps you will not forfeit both worlds."

"Why bother coming to me?" Rakmiel sighed sadly, "Everything is lost. My spiritual life is shattered. I thought by showing concern for other people I would grow spiritually, but the opposite has resulted. I am surrounded by foolish people who nag me for imaginary blessings, who tell me problems only they themselves can correct. Meanwhile I can't meditate any more on sacred unifications and have lost the momentum in the path of Torah." Rakmiel looked up at his visitor in silence.

The sly angel took the rabbi by the shoulders and said, "My dear brother! You know how important it is to reveal your soul, whatever is going on, to at least one person in the world. So tell me all your deepest feelings. And don't think I'm just an ordinary Jew; I'm actually a very honorable rabbi and an accomplished Torah scholar. You can trust me - just listen to this."

The Adversary, dressed like a rabbi, began discoursing on Torah. He quoted the Talmud, the commentaries, the supercommentaries, the codes of Jewish law, the Zohar, the writings of the Ari, and the commentaries of his students. He showed that he was obviously a man who was totally immersed in Torah. When Rakmiel heard all the wisdom pouring out of the rabbi standing in front of him, he felt he could trust him. So he poured out his heart, all of his doubts, anxieties, fears, and nightmares.

When the saint completed his confession, the angel-rabbi responded haughtily, "My honorable colleague, I'm really ashamed to hear you. If I've heard correctly, you basically want to withdraw from the world. But how can you do that? Doesn't it say, 'It is not the learning that counts, but the applying it to reality'? If you don't offer what you know, what good is it? Every person is not complete in righteousness until one manifests the three pillars that sustain the world: Torah, study of the scriptures; Avodah, the way of prayer; and Gemilut Hasadim, acts of loving-kindness. Now, everybody knows that loving-kindness is the most important. Since you don't have money to give charity, at least you could help people by giving them good advice, by listening to their problems, and by blessing them. This would be of great service - you would be doing a great deed. What does it say in the Zohar concerning our great ancestor Abraham? Who was this Abraham? He could study Torah all day long if he wanted to, but he put aside a part of the day to welcome guests and heal people. The sacred Zohar explains, what did Abraham really do? He stood at the crossroads and welcomed guests who were traveling in all directions in order to manifest godliness in the world. Therefore listen to my advice - divide your time into three parts: the first part of the day dedicate to Torah; the second part of the day dedicate to the service of others; and the third shall be for your basic necessities. This way you'll be loved by Heaven and earth and everyone will be blessed by your presence."

When Rakmiel the Saint heard this profound advice, he felt truly understood and wanted to show appreciation by making a little banquet for this wise and angelic rabbi. He vowed to take upon himself the exact instructions that had been transmitted to him.

The truth was, however, that Reb Rakmiel had not reached the level of being a master, a rebbe, who can teach Torah publicly. He was not yet ready to take upon himself the sufferings of the countless souls that came to him for guidance, souls that came by the hundreds, day in, day out. The responsibility to guide the souls became an obsession for Rakmiel, to the point that he lost ground in his studies and practices. He became drunk with power and prideful at having so many people come to him to be guided and healed. When he would stop for a moment, Rakmiel would see the truth of the matter and become frightened, but the sweetness of all those depending on his blessing overshadowed any reflection of his conscience.

A year went by. The rabbi of the woods walked to his yearly retreat and accounting of his soul. "Gevalt!" he cried to himself. "What's going to be with me when I go to the next world? The Heavenly Court is going to confront me with the truth - this entire rabbi business is a sham. I am not helping anyone. I'm fooling everyone but God and myself! What to do?!"

Rakmiel went into himself. He let his thoughts go by until he was clear. And then he made a decision. He would go back to Torah study, totally, day and night. He would not try to help people anymore. Let them come. He would not receive them. He resolved to begin again and return to his original goals.

In the moment of his resolve, the sly, devilish angel appeared before Rakmiel in the form of a great luminous tzaddik saint whose face illuminated the wood. Rakmiel was astounded by the sight. Not even the greatest saint of the generation had had such a visitation.

The angel-rabbi spoke with exuberance, "You are so lucky, my dear holy of holiest, tzaddik of the world, foundation of all worlds, light of the En Sof. You don't know how special you are - your acts of kindness are sustaining all the worlds. Listen, Rabbi Rakmiel, imagine the root prophet of all the prophets - our Master Moses - who saw God directly without veils, who prophesied in a waking state, who did not just remain in a visionary state, but descended to be with the people. You, my friend, are following in his footsteps. If you wish to continue following my advice, consider this - give all your time to these brokenhearted souls. They need you. They want you. Give all the Torah you have within you already. Don't worry, be happy. You won't forget what you have learned. It is sealed within yourself. Do you think Moses was concerned that he was going to forget his Torah? No. The more he gave, the more he received. Continue in the ways of your teacher."

Rakmiel the Kabbalist was completely won over by the smooth-talking angel-rabbi. By and by he studied less and less, and blessed more and more. Morning to night he advised, consoled, and blessed people. He truly believed in his heart that he didn't need to learn from the holy books because he had learned everything there was to know anyway and a holy man such as he could not forget anything. Sad to say, the year went by, and he forgot even the day of his soul accounting. The sly angel had him in his net of spiritual illusions.

A very strange transformation took place with Rabbi Rakmiel. The advice he would give people took a cruel and vulgar twist. If someone would came and say, "My neighbor is harassing me," Rakmiel would respond, "Don't worry, soon he's going to die." If someone said, "So-and-so refused to pay me for work," he would say, "Don't worry, so-and-so will soon lose all of his property." He had completely succumbed to the power of being a rebbe over people. He lost his sincerity and played into the lowest emotions of people.

He became so involved that he forgot his sacred learning. Finally he even stopped praying. He thought to himself, "People are suffering so much, I must sacrifice everything to help people."

The descent of Rakmiel was just beginning.

The Adversary watched Rakmiel the Kabbalist succumb to popularity. He observed how he administered horrible advice to broken souls, how he created much confusion in people through his flippant and egotistical counseling.

Appearing again as a rabbi before the power-drunk Rakmiel, the Adversary addressed him with a kind sneer, "My most precious friend, I must tell you something of great importance. I have heard up in Heaven that you are one of the greatest sinners of all time. You have reached such a high level of sinning that no matter what penance you try to do, it will not be received by the Almighty! Even if you were to stop everything you're doing and begin a life of prayer, supplications, fasting, crying, and studying the sacred Torah until you die, your penance will be to no avail. Do you know why? Because God is hiding from you. Due to your callousness and ruthlessness, many many souls are living in terrible confusion. Through your utterances men have died. Through your deceit, widows and orphans have lost money and are destitute. Even righteous Jews have left their faith because of you deluded advice. May the Compassionate One save us! There is no hope for you."

The kabbalist was stunned by the condemnation of his old friend and advisor. "We find in the Talmud nevertheless," he retorted haughtily, "that nothing, nothing, mind you, stands in the way of returning to God!"

"The Talmud also relates in the matter of returning," the sly angel-rabbi glibly responded, "'Return, returning children, excluding the heretic Acher.' what does this mean? Even though Acher wanted to do teshuvah, the Heavens refused to accept his penance. There are some who are refused heavenly entry due to accumulation of their deeds. And you are one of those souls whose sins are worse than the heretic Acher. I speak the truth, friend."

Rakmiel, not wanting to lose face, knew that his rabbi friend would at least have some good advice. "If this is the truth, then what am I to do?" he pleaded. "I have nothing from this material world because I'm a poor man, and you say from the World to Come I have been pushed aside for eternity. So what to do?"

The sly angel whispered to Rakmiel, "If you listen carefully and do as I say, you will become rich and powerful, and then you can do what you want. I'm sure you know that your name is known throughout the country as a saint and a miracle worker. People come to you from all over just to receive your blessing. So when someone comes to you and he wishes you to bless him, tell him: 'Do you think I'm your slave and will do your bidding as soon as you show up at my doorstep? It doesn't work like that. If you want a blessing, make a donation of eighteen rubles, and then I will bless you with whatever you desire.'"

Rakmiel immediately took the sly angel's advice seriously and in a short time he became an unbelievably wealthy man. No one dared steal anything from him - thieves were terrified to go near his house. Rakmiel, with his psychic power, had planted real fear within everyone around him, even the most powerful citizens of the town.

One day Rabbi Rakmiel spoke to his confidant, the angel-rabbi, "What good is all this money? I don't know what to do with it."

The Adversary replied with reckless joy, "Come, follow me, and I will show you what you can do with ten thousand rubles."

They bought a luxurious wagon with four horses, one white, one flaming auburn, one black, and one spotted. They began traveling toward the capital, stopping along the way to indulge in the most elegant cuisine of the finest taverns. When they arrived at the capital, the sly angel took the rabbi to the gambling houses, pubs, bordellos, and other unmentionable places. He took Rakmiel to places that stirred up his lowest desires, his most vulgar cravings; in short, he indulged to the point of obsessive addiction. When Rakmiel returned to his home, he continued to indulge in his vulgar pleasures, flaunting them to the townspeople, and laughing at the seekers who came to him. By and by those who came to him, religiously, saw that this was not Rabbi Rakmiel the Saint. This man had become obsessed with his desires. He looked ugly and acted shamelessly. He had become Rakmiel the Reckless.

He lost all his customers and soon thereafter lost his money. Rakmiel was destitute and bitter. He began complaining and blaming everyone for his misery. Tovil, his devoted wife of so many years, saw that she could no longer help him. By staying with him, Tovil was indirectly supporting Rakmiel's degeneration. She demanded a divorce. He refused, laughing at her derisively. She saw that Rakmiel had become evil incarnate. Packing her personal possessions, she moved back with her kind parents, who lived at the other edge of town. Rakmiel, left alone, meditated on his life. But he did not see how he had been snared and seduced into his lower realm of existence by the so-called respectable rabbi. In a bitter mood, Rakmiel cried out to his advisor, and the rabbi appeared, as if he had just happened to be walking by and was going to pay a short visit.

"My dear Genius, Great Rabbi of Israel, Light of Redemption," sneered the angel-rabbi, "so how are you faring? Is everything all right? Why, you look just miserable! What is going on with you?"

Rakmiel, the former saintly kabbalist, bitterly recalled how his life had turned into a series of shattering disasters. "Honorable protector, holy rabbi, my only friend in the world - I need help!"

The sly angel at last advised him, "Don't you remember, Rabbi Rakmiel, from your early years when you studied the secrets of Torah and within these secrets were contained the practical and magical Kabbalah. Don't you remember the tradition of taking vengeance on someone by invoking God's Names? Don't you remember what it says in the Brit Menuchah and the Shoshan Sodot? You invoke such-and-such names, and then you gaze upon the person you wish vengeance on, and then they are no longer in this world! Why don't you go and stand on the crossroads between here and Lemberg! When you notice a well-dressed traveler, invoke and gaze. He will drop dead most assuredly in no time, and then you can seize his possessions. Everyone will be terrified of you and you will become as wealthy as you want."

The Baal Shem Tov looked at his audience sadly. Then he continued his tale:

This man, the very sad hero of this story, if you can call such a man a hero, I don't know, but without thinking, Rakmiel the Reckless was transformed into Rakmiel the Ruthless.

He hid in the woods near the most important junction leading to Lemberg. Any time an unlucky businessman went even near Rakmiel's hideaway, the traveler would die instantaneously in the middle of the road. Rakmiel the Ruthless would make sure no one else was on the road, strip the man of his most valuable possessions, and run off into the woods, leaving the body to rot in the sun. Rakmiel the Retired Saint continued to practice his magic Kabbalah until so many bodies were found on this ill-fated road that people from all around began calling this intersection "Dead Man's Crossroad." People were terrified to go near and for good reason - in seven month's time, thirty-six people had been killed here by a ruthless band of murderers who were not even civil enough to bury their victims. They just left the bodies to the vultures. Travelers, mainly peddlers and merchants, would rather go a roundabout way that would take them three times as long to get to their destination. No one had seen the murderers, and a wave of evil reverberated around these roads and adjacent towns.

The evil kabbalist continued practicing his dark invocations. He had descended to the point of no return.

Meanwhile, war had broken out with a neighboring country. The king of Poland called upon everyone in the country to donate to the war chest. It was a dangerous time and soldiers were starving. The king needed huge amounts of money to battle the enemy and to feed his soldiers. When the proclamation reached the town situated near "Dead Man's Crossroad," the elders of the town were terribly anxious because they would have to send their war offerings to Lemberg. But it was crucial that they be sent immediately.

A man appeared one day and said that he was not afraid of unknown, unseen murderers. He would take the town's war chest to the king on certain conditions. He demanded five hundred soldiers with guns and cannons to accompany him. This defiantly brave and courageous man also requested a telescope, saying that he would not leave until the town elders supplied him with one. They gave him everything he asked for and he left town with a grateful multitude cheering him on.

When they had traveled on the highway for awhile, the entire regiment stopped as one. The air stank from rotting flesh. Everyone knew they were near the murderous crossroads. The volunteer-messenger of the town took out his telescope and scanned the area. At first he couldn't see a thing, just acres of farmlands surrounded by an undefined mass of wooded hills. He scanned the area very slowly, looking for every possible hideout. He stopped. There was a round mass of something huddled behind felled trees. After intense concentration and focusing, the messenger knew beyond doubt that there was a man staring out toward the road like a preying hawk waiting to attack an unsuspecting victim. The messenger ordered the cannons turned to this specific spot in the woods and opened fire until he could see through his telescope that the cannon shot had hit its target. The murderer was dead.

The soldiers cheered, continuing on to Lemberg in a jubilant and festive spirit. There they were received by the king of Poland with great joy and deep appreciation. Rewards were showered upon the messenger and he was made a baron for his bravery.

The murderer-kabbalist lay on the ground, bloodied and exhausted. The Adversary appeared to him now as a devilish being.

"Look what has happened to me!" Rakmiel cried out bitterly. "you seduced me onto an evil path and now I am dying. What have you gained from all this? It would have been best that I had never met you! What do you want from me?"

The devil-angel eyed him with scorn and cooly replied, "Rabbi, if you will swear to forget your Jewishness completely and convert to another religion, I will personally remove the gunshot from your body and you will be perfectly healthy."

"Yes, I will do whatever you say. Just take these accursed bullets out of my body."

As soon as Rakmiel was able to stand, the devil demanded that he swear to become an apostate. The kabbalist turned to the devil-angel and spoke with a conviction that surprised him - a determination that emerged from the abyss, in spite of the despair.

"I have listened and heeded your advice for everything. But I absolutely cannot, will not, ever forsake the God of Israel. There is no way that I can forsake the Creator who bestows goodness upon everyone. I won't and that's final!"

Upon hearing this the devil-angel ruthlessly placed the gunshot back inside Rakmiel's body and he screamed in excruciating agony. He conceded to the devil that he would abide by his wishes and the balls were removed again. One more the shattered kabbalist refused to forsake his basic belief in the God of his ancestors. The balls were replaced and removed and replaced and removed and still he refused. This went on back and forth so many times until Rakmiel had lost his strength. He stopped speaking. His face crashed into the rocks. A vulture hovered over the ravaged body.

When Rakmiel's soul ascended and the Heavenly Court was about to condemn him to eternal hell for his evil actions, Rakmiel countered powerfully, "How can you honestly condemn me? You all know that I was tested by the most evil angel of existence. How could I possibly not have succumbed to this devil's insidious deceit? How could I, a simple Jew, not be seduced by this horrible angel, an angel whose sole mission has been to ensnare, deceive, and destroy good people all over the world from the beginning of time? I plead before you to have mercy upon my soul and not send it into the neverending dark and terrible abyss. I beg you, O Merciful Court."

And the Heavenly Court responded, "Rakmiel, the former rabbi, saint, and kabbalist, how dare you blame the devil for your ugly transformation? It is true from God's view that no one had free choice because the Creator is truly all-knowing. But as long as you are on the earthly plane, you do have free choice, and you did choose to be led and tempted by the sly angel. You decided to run after power and vengeance. People were murdered, people were slandered, people lost their wealth - all because you decided to pervert the sacred path of Torah into the path of vengeance and total disrespect for every human being who did not give you what you wanted. You should be condemned to the abyss."

And Rakmiel in a last attempt beseeched, "Compassionate Court, I admit all my wrongdoings, all the ugliest evil, everything. I have just one more thing to say. The early years of my life were spent in total devotion to the Torah. I was completely surrendered to serving God. Have mercy on my soul for these good deeds."

Once again the Baal Shem Tov regarded his listeners, and then he concluded this tragic tale with this revelation:

For hundreds of years, this soul was not allowed into Heaven or hell. This soul has had no rest. He has been in perpetual psychic exile. One night while deep in my meditations, this soul came to me for a tikkun, a mystical intention to release him from exile. Today was the day this soul was at last released from his suffering. This is why I have asked my wonderful wife, Chanah, to prepare this humble banquet to celebrate this moment for the benefit of his soul."

The guests were stunned by this tale. It moved people so much that visiting rabbis who were slightly skeptical of the ways of the Baal Shem were won over by this awesome tale of penance. A great talmudic scholar, who never cried in his life, was weeping openly before the kind and compassionate eyes of the chasidim and their master.

Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov ended this story with these wise words: "We take it for granted that since we have the Torah our life is set. There are no problems. The opposite is true. The more you study Torah, the more obstructions will be placed before you. If you immerse yourself in the secrets of Torah, the greater the obstructions, the deeper and more insidious the deception. Those who practice the meditations of Kabbalah must do so with a study partner. It is crucial. Practicing by yourself, the ego will deceive you. Understand your limitations in serving God, and be very humble when you achieve a high state of God-realization. Apply your realization for the good of the people around you. By practicing this way, God's real compassion will be manifest in the world."

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Sources: Kol Sippurei HaBesht, Yeshuot Yisrael

As published in Meetings with Remarkable Souls - Legends of the Baal Shem Tov, by Eliahu Klein.
Copyright © 1995 by Eliahu Klein.

Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ. Permission was also obtained from the author. To order: The Jason Aronson Home Page



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