Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Story of Two Souls

Original Art by Esther Zibell
by Meyer Levin

The mystery of two souls that were separated and how the Baal Shem Tov brought them together when they suffered re-birth on earth.

The Baal Shem Tov said: From every human being there rises a light that reaches straight to Heaven. And when two souls who are destined to be together find each other, their streams of light flow together, and a single brighter light goes forth from their united being.

At the beginning of every year, among the hundreds of pilgrims who made their way to the cottage of the Baal Shem Tov in Medzibuz, there always came a very small woman, poorer than the rest, and humble. She was the wife of a wood-cutter in a distant village. Each year she came on foot to Medzibuz, and bowed her small head before the Besht. And each year she would say to him: "I pray to G-d to give me a child. Rabbi, if you too will say a little prayer for me, the Almighty One will surely send me a child".

But the Baal Shem Tov knew that no soul was yet allotted to be born through her, and each year he said to her "Go home and wait".

Year by year he watched her growing older, he saw how she became bent with toil, and how the lines on her small face deepened with the pain of her unfulfilled desire.

But one year he said to her: "Go home. This year, a child will be given to you."

For the next five years, the little woman did not come to the Baal Shem Tov. He knew that she had a child, and that it was difficult for her to make the journey with the infant.

But on the fifth year he saw her coming. She led a child by the hand. She was so bent and shrunken that she seemed smaller than the young boy who walked beside her. She said to the Rabbi "G-d has blessed me with a child but I cannot keep this child".

The Besht put his hand on her and said "Is this not the son for whom you prayed so many years?"

"He is the flesh of my flesh" said the old woman, "but his soul is not kin to my soul. I cannot look into his eyes, for they are the eyes of a stranger. Rabbi, he is a gentle boy, and obedient, and good, but he is not of my poor world. I tremble before his wisdom."

The Baal Shem Tov looked at the boy. The child was beautiful, with a large head and great black eyes that were filled with mysterious wisdom.

"I am afraid of his eyes" said the mother. "Rabbi, when he was born, and he opened his eyes for the first time, and looked into my eyes, it was as if I had been pierced by two hot beams. I was terribly frightened. I knew at once that he was not my child. And ever since then, I have been frightened."

"Leave the child with me", said the Baal Shem Tov.

Then he raised the boy in his house, and as the boy grew, he began to study the books of the Law, and he learned so quickly and so perfectly that he was soon the best of all the scholars in the house of the Baal Shem Tov.

Many wealthy Jews, hearing of the intelligence and beauty of the scholar, came to the Besht seeking to make a marriage contact for their daughters with the boy Issachar. "It is not yet time for him to marry" the Besht would say to them.

But when Issachar was fully grown, the Besht called his trusted follower Rabbi Wolf and said to him: "I will give you the name of a certain man in a village far from this place. Go there and find the man. Ask him to give us his third daughter as a wife for our young Issachar."

Then the Besht told Rabbi Wolf of certain signs by which he would know the girl. He also told him her name, and her age, and how she would seem.

Rabbi Wolf journeyed to the distant village, and began to ask among the richest houses there for the man whom he sought. But the man was not known among the wealthy, nor was his name known in the synagogue. Then Rabbi Wolf went to all the places where men gathered, old and young, and enquired for the man he sought. But he did not find him.

At last Rabbi Wolf despaired of fulfilling the command of his master. He wandered alone on the road. Not far from the village he saw a poor man who was coming to the town, carrying on his back a great basket filled with vegetables. The man was bent under the weight of the basket.

"Tell me your name", said Rabbi Wolf to the gardener.

The man spoke his name, and the messenger knew that this was the man he sought.

"Set down your basket" he said. The man set down his basket.

"I have been sent to seek you by Rabbi Israel, the Baal Shem Tov. He asks if you will give your third daughter in marriage to our young scholar Issachar."

A smile came onto the face of the gardener, and he laughed with joy. "Why shouldn't I?" he said. "My house is filled with daughters! They run around barefoot, they quarrel over each crust of bread. And where will I ever get money to provide each of them with a dowry?"

"There is no need of a dowry", said Rabbi Wolf. "Besides, my master will provide the wedding, and give the bride wedding clothes, and furnish a home for the bride and groom."

The gardener was overjoyed. "It just happens that the daughter for whom you ask is the quietest of all the girls. She does the work about the house, and she comes out to help me in the garden. She is good and gentle. And yet, sometimes, she is as a stranger among us."

Then Rabbi Wolf told him the name of his daughter, and give him other signs to make sure that she was the one.

On the next day, the little old man and his daughter set off for Medzibuz with Rabbi Wolf. When they arrived, they were received with great honour by the Besht. The girl was given good clothes to wear, and shoes to put on her bare feet.

For the wedding festival, the Besht had sent to the little village where the mother and father of Issachar lived, and the aged couple came to see the wedding of their son.

A great feast was prepared, and the canopy was made ready. The Besht himself read the service of the marriage, and blessed the husband and wife.

When the wedding was concluded, the Besht sat at the head of his great table. On one side was the father of the girl, and on his other side was the mother of the boy. All the chassidim sat around the table. The Besht said "I will tell you a story". They knew by his voice that this was no idle story, and all became quiet and listened.

Then the Baal Shem Tov spoke:

Long ago in a distant land there was a King who passed his days in worry and his nights in torment because he had no heir. Year after year went by. He called in every wise man and every sorcerer in his kingdom, but their wizardry was of no avail. He sent to all the corners of the earth, and brought wise men and sorcerers to his court, and they tried with all their might to force the Supreme Will to send down a child to the King. But none of their efforts availed.

At last, the most learned of the sorcerers said to the King: "I have thought of a way". The King said "Tell me what it is, and I will do it, even if I have to destroy my Kingdom in its accomplishment."

The sorcerer said "In your land there are many Jews. These Jews have a powerful G-d. Send out a command forbidding the Jews to worship their G-d, forbidding them on pain of death to indulge in any of the practices of their religion until a son is born to the King. Afterwards, if a son is born to you, you may allow them to return to the practices of their religion. And say in your command that if any Jew is found worshipping his G-d while a son is not yet born to the King, he shall be put to death."

The King agreed and sent out a declaration that the Jews were forbidden to read their holy books, or put on tefillin, or wear a tallis, or circumcise their male offspring, or to perform any of the rites of their religion, on pain of death, until a son was born to the King.

Then darkness and bitterness came over all the Jews of that land. Many fled the Kingdom; others pretended obedience by day, but at night crept into houses of prayer that they had dug under the earth; they hid themselves in secret places, in graveyards, in forests, and there they worshipped their G-d with feverish intensity, begging that they be saved from the commands of their King.

The angels on high saw the suffering of the Jews. Then the purest choir of souls that encircle the throne of the Almighty had pity on the Jews, and begged G-d to send the King a son. But the Almighty would not yield or change the order of the going down of the souls.

At last one soul, purer than all the rest, the soul of a Tzadik who had been freed forever from earthly bonds, and who had won his place in the highest rings of Heaven, came before G-d and said: "I offer to suffer gilgul (reincarnation) and take earthly form again. Let me go down and be born as a son to that King, so the Jews of his land may be free once more to worship G-d."

G-d consented. Then the soul of the tzadik went down to earth, to be born as the son of the King.

But when the child was born, the King, in the greatness of his joy, forgot all about the Jews, and as no Jews were permitted to come into the palace, there was no-one to remind him of their suffering. The laws against them were not withdrawn and, just as before, they were forbidden to worship their G-d.

The prince grew. He became a beautiful boy, and he surprised everyone with his quickness in learning. The King took care that the prince should have no desire unsatisfied. The boy was surrounded by every luxury known to man, and provided with every delicacy. A hundred slaves bowed to the slightest movement of his fingers.

But the prince seemed to take no joy in luxury. He desired only wisdom. The most learned men in the kingdom were brought to the court to become his teachers, but the boy was so quick to learn that before he was six years old he had sucked dry the knowledge of all the wise men of the land. Then the King sent abroad once more and brought scholars and magicians to his court. But none of them could quench the thirst that was in the prince. Soon he knew all the languages of men, and all the sciences of men, and yet he was sad, seeking some unknown thing.

All day long he wandered by himself in the garden. His father the King would come to him and say "Why are you unhappy?" The boy would answer: "Bring me a sage who can teach me happiness".

The King was more grieved than he had been before the child was born. He did not know where to find such a sage.

At last, the King heard his people talking of a learned man who had appeared in the city, who spoke in the streets and in the marketplace, and whose words were filled with marvellous wisdom. The King sent out messengers to seek out the man, and after many days he was found in one of the small streets of the city. "Will you teach my son wisdom?" the King asked him.

The old man was willing to become the teacher of the prince, but he only asked one thing: "Give me a chamber that shall be for me alone. Let no-one be permitted to come into that chamber. And during one hour of each day, let me retire into that chamber, and be alone. Let no-one disturb me, or spy upon me in that chamber". The King granted this request and the stranger became the teacher of the prince.

The prince was happy with his new master. There seemed no depth of wisdom which he had not plumbed. They were together all day long and spoke of things on earth, and below, and above.

The prince did not know why it was, but he loved the aged stranger. He loved to walk with him in the garden, to sit by his side at the table, to listen to his voice. But during one hour every day the prince was unhappy. He asked the old man "Where do you go, when I cannot find you?"

The teacher said to him "I have a closed chamber and for one hour each day I am alone there".

The boy could not bear to think that his beloved friend should have a secret from him. He did not wish to spy upon his teacher, but at last, like a child, he could withhold himself no longer. One day he hid behind the curtains of his master's private chamber. He saw the master come into the room, and stand before the altar, and put a fringed shawl over his head, and wind tefillin around his arm. Then the boy stepped from his hiding place and said: "Here I am".

The old man was not angry with him, for he loved the boy. But he feared what might come of this knowledge, and he said to the boy "No-one must know of what you have seen here".

The boy said "Why do you do these things?"

The man said "I am a Jew".

The boy said "In all the times when you have been with me, I have felt at peace because you were at peace. But in this chamber I have seen you joyful, and I have never seen you so joyful."

The man said "Here I worship my G-d, and I worship my G-d with joy".

The prince wanted to be like his teacher in every way, and he said "Teach me to worship your G-d".

"It is forbidden" said the old man. Then he explained to the prince how the King had forbidden the Jews to practice their religion until a son was born to him. "With many others, I fled the Kingdom" he said, "but when I heard that there was a prince in the land, I returned. Nevertheless, the Jews are still forbidden to worship their G-d, therefore I put on my prayer shawl and tefillin in secret in this room, and no-one must know what I do."

After that, at the same hour every day, they retired to the room of the teacher, and the boy learned to read the books of Torah. He learned quickly, and the Tzadik's soul that was in him became joyous. At the end of that hour each day it became more difficult for him to tear himself away from his studies. "Let us spend all of our time studying the Torah" he said.

"Then we must go away from here" said the sage. And he made a plan. "We will escape at night, and go to a far city where we may freely worship our G-d."

In the middle of the night they wrapped their holy books in bundles and went out of the palace and fled. The old man took the prince to a distant city where he was known and honoured. There the boy grew, soon he became celebrated among the rabbis for his wisdom. "He will be a tzadik" they said of him.

But when they spoke in that way of his perfection, the boy became sad, and a vast yearning and loneliness came over his face. For he had already knocked on the innermost door of Heaven, and the door had remained closed to him, while a hand had shown him the blot that was upon his soul.

One day the sage took the prince to visit the head of the rabbis of that city. As they came into the house of the great rabbi, his daughter saw the young prince and her soul quivered. The prince looked at the girl and he felt that she would be the end of his loneliness.

Afterwards, the girl went to her father and asked of him that he speak to the teacher of the young scholar. The head of the rabbis came to the sage's house and said "Your young scholar is the worthiest of the young men. Let him become the husband of my daughter."

So the two children were married. So true was the love of their souls, that at the moment of their marriage a single light streamed upward to Heaven, and lighted the whole world.

But on the night of their marriage, the boy said to his wife: "Dear one, there will be times when my soul will leave my body, my body will lie as dead, and you will be stricken with fear. At those times you must not call anyone, nor be alarmed, but must remain sitting by my side, and wait silently until my soul returns to this body."

She answered "Beloved, I shall do as you say."

So they lived together in that city, and they were happy in their love.

But once, at night, the soul of the prince left his body, and was away for a very long time. The bride sat by his body, and held his hand, and waited. The hand became cold as stone. The face became white as snow. The brow shone in the pallor of death. From moment to moment she leaned her head to his heart, and she heard how the heart beat ever more faintly.

The bride was frightened, she wanted to run from the house and call people to help her, but she remembered the words of her husband, and sat by his side, and waited.

At last, when dawn came creeping, a flush of colour returned with the first flush of light to the cheeks of her husband. Soon she felt warmth in his hand. Then she knew his soul had returned to his body. But his body was very weak, and he did not rise from the bed.

"Know", he said "that this night I pierced to the highest of Heavens, and stood before the Unnameable Presence. And I asked what would become of me. My soul was born in sin, all my youth I was raised in luxury in the palace of a King, while my people suffered. And for the youth that I passed in ignorance and in luxury, and for that I lived uncircumcised, there is a stain upon my soul, and my soul will be forever prevented of attaining perfection. Then, there is only one thing that I may do. I may consent to immediate death. Afterwards, my soul must be reborn to a pure but humble woman, and the first years of my life must be passed in poverty, for only in that next incarnation may I attain perfection. Beloved, I must depart from this life. Beloved, let me go."

Then his wife said to him: "Only on one condition will I consent that you give yourself to death. Let me die with you. Let me be reborn when you are reborn. Let me come back to earth, and as your wife be one with you again."

He said: "May it be so".

They lay down to death together, and their souls went forth in the same breath. For timeless ages their souls strayed in the darkness where there is no boundary of space. And at last the soul of the boy returned to earth to be born as the son of a little old woman who lived in poverty in a wood-cutter's hut on the mountain. And the soul of the girl returned to earth to be born as the daughter of a poor gardener, the father of many daughters.

Then, far from each other, the two children grew. And in each child there was a sadness and a yearning for it knew not what, and each child, though gentle and good at home among its people, was as a stranger in its world.

And so all the days of their childhood and youth were a seeking for they knew not what, their eyes looked with hope toward each new soul, and yet they saw into endless darkness, until they forgot what they awaited. But know, my friends, that these two souls at last have found each other and have come together here as bride and groom on this day.

Then the Besht was silent. And all those who sat in the house felt a sweet joy arise within them, and they looked up with eyes that seemed to greet the wanderers of eternity, and all of their faces seemed to be lit by a single mightly flame that rose toward the Heavens.

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