An expensive carriage stopped outside the Baal Shem Tov’s home. The first thing to emerge? A velvet sack that hit the ground, but with a “clink” rather than a thud, and after which the sack’s owner stepped out and into the Besht’s domain. He entered the study to a cheerful “Sholom aleichem” from the Baal Shem Tov, to which he quietly replied. He placed the sack on the shtender the Besht studied from, and turned to leave, but the Besht invited him to stay. Nu? He stayed.
“So many people,” the Besht said, “visit me for advice, a blessing, healing. I offer them these, and sometimes also a shtip. Yet I have never seen you before, my dear cousin, nu? Vos zynin ir da, why are you here now?”
His cousin did not look up. “Your good works reach me,” his cousin replied. “You help we who suffer. These gold coins are yours now, to support you, your work, the poor.” The Baal Shem Tov spent time looking at his cousin, who finally looked up, but then quickly looked down again. Even so, the Besht’s eyes gazed into a deep and troubled soul. It was time for a story, nu? The Baal Shem Tov lit a candle on his desk. The licht caught, the room became bright, and the Besht began “Let me tell you a story.”
“Two boys were once the best of friends,” he began. “They played, they prayed, they learned together. They were brothers, not friends, so they decided to be blood brothers like the Ukrainishe sometimes do. Their oath? Success we share, one pain is felt by both. Bar mitzvo? Together. Chassene? They were married the same day, though one married a young woman from a distant village, and he left to live with her family.” One pain felt by both, and they parted.
“They settled into their new lives, they stayed in contact, over time their letters became less frequent, and over time their letters stopped. One day, though, a letter came to the blood brother who remained. My family, he read, my wealth, everything, all gone. He waited not a moment to write back. “My coach departs tomorrow,” he wrote. “You are my guest. I will take care of everything.”
“Two weeks later, the coach returned, and he escorted his blood brother, his oldest friend into his house, decorated rooms finely and richly crafted. Success we share, he said, and so half is yours. Start your business, your life again. They settled into their new lives, they stayed in contact, over time their letters became less frequent, and over time their letters stopped. One day, though, a letter left from the blood brother who remained. His family lost, his house ruined, his trade drowned in the sea, everything gone but a few gold coins. He did not receive a reply. He sent another letter. “I leave for you today,” he wrote, “with what little I have left.” And he set off on foot.
“One day passed into another, and each day he anticipated his blood brother’s carriage. He was indigent after a week, he begged for bread, he slept in doorways, yet he he anticipated his blood brother’s carriage. Maybe it’s taken a different route, he thought. I know I’m welcome. He finally arrived, a steep price this man with no means had paid for this journey, for it cost him pain, cold, and weakness. He asked directions and only received a warning: Do not go there. Beggars are not welcome.
“Even so, he went. By nightfall he arrived. A heavy door silenced his incessant knocking. A muffled voice finally called No poverty will cross this doorway.
“Tell your master his blood brother has arrived,” he replied. Muffled footsteps trudged away.
“If I see him,” thought the master, “love will overcome me. His half sustained me but if my half sustains him what will become of the half I have left? Never again will I feel the pain imposed by poverty!” And so the master said Tell him to leave.
“Day by day the blood brother begged for food. Night after night he slept in his blood brother’s doorway . Morning after morning, he knocked at the door. Time after time he was turned away. Death soon approached. Death claimed him alone, in a field, and soon thereafter claimed the master, alone but for his money. Together in death each soul arrived before the Bes Din Elyoin, the heavenly court.
“Gavriel? Poverty to Pardes and wealth to Gehenna. Michoel? Poverty to Pardes and wealth to Gehenna. Rafael? Poverty to Pardes and wealth to Gehenna. Uriel? Poverty to Pardes and wealth to Gehenna. The blood brother objected. Success we share, one pain is felt by both. The Bes Din was in disarray on hearing this.
“Nu? The court ruled Poor man, live poor. Rich man, live rich. Rich man, poor man in Pardes together? Rich man, give once. And thus they were reborn, one to indigence and one to privilege. Work sometimes came to the poor man, but most often he was a wanderer and schnorrer. On the day he came to the rich man’s town he knew there was an important task to accomplish, but he didn’t know what. He stayed even after the traveller’s aid turned him away.
“Day by day the schnorrer begged for food, he wandered up one one mean street and down another, until he once came upon a fence and an estate. It was there that he realised his mission. So he came to the gate to ask for tzedaka. Do not ask, the servant said. Leave or meet my dogs.
“Something possessed the schnorrer. I need only a moment, he said, and for some reason the servant let him pass. It soon happened that wealth approached him. I only need a crumb, the schnorrer said, only a crumb.
“Fear spoke from four eyes. Wealth saw poverty’s pain. Poverty saw something else. Something, he begged, anything. Wealth pushed poverty away. Poverty fell, struck his head on a stray stone, and died. Wealth buried the corpse.”
The candle by which the Besht told his story had burned to a stub. “Ach und vey,” his cousin cried. “How could you know?! I didn’t mean to harm him! Tell me, what is my tshuva, how do I repent?”
“I only know one way,” the Besht answered, “and I cannot guarantee you success. Take the sack back. Put your indulgence behind you and your wealth in front. Let your coins circulate as you wander from place to place. Never stop pleading to the Ribono shel oilem, the Master of all worlds, for mercy. Perhaps you will be heard. Perhaps not.” For some time longer his cousin wept. He carried his sack, went to his carriage, and spoke to the driver. Then walked one way while his carriage went another.