The Baal Shem Tov once spoke to his followers. “This is the last year of my life,” he said. “Each of you will have a responsibility after I’m gone.” He spoke to each in turn, appointing him to one role or another. The last one he spoke to was Reb Yankel. “You will tell the stories,” the Besht said, “you will travel thither and yon and share our experience, strength and hope.”
“Heilige Yid,” Reb Yankl replied, “holy master, whatever you ask, but please… not this. I am no storyteller. And if I am to be itinerant, how am I to have a home or a family?”
“Surprise awaits you, I think,” the Baal Shem Tov replied. “There will be a sign for you when it is time to settle. Your job will be complete then, and your wandering will cease.” And so it happened. The Besht died and each who followed him undertook the role he was assigned. Reb Yankl, with great reluctance, bid farewell to the community he loved.
He set off alone but was soon to discover he was never alone. Town to town, up and down the road, people had heard of his master, the Heilige Yid, the holy Jew. Reb Yankl always found a receptive audience, a place to stay and eat. “Reb Yankl,” someone would call out, “your coat! It’s fraying. Please, take this coat instead, ” or “ Reb Yankl, your shoes. Go to the cobbler. He’s my cousin, tell him to measure you a new pair. It’s my privilege to pay for them.”
It happened that Reb Yankl heard that far up the road was a gavir, a rich man who paid a gold coin to hear the stories of the Baal Shem Tov. Reb Yankl knew many, many stories. He anticipated his wealth as he went from town to town, up and down the road. Some time later he arrived at the gavir’s home, and such enthusiasm he never before had encountered! “Reb Yid, sholom aleichem,” his host acclaimed. “You know the heilege Yid’s stories, and you knew the heilege Yid! A tish tonight, tell your stories, teach us.”
After the tish, Yankl found he could not remember a single thing. “Mein genedik baal habays, my gracious host, please… let someone else begin.” A story began, a story he knew well, for he had heard the story from the Besht. A story he knew and a story that, somehow, seemed new to him. Reb Yankl was troubled. He tried to imagine his master, this he often did when he was troubled, but this time? Gornisht, nothing, a head with no features.
And so others told the stories. “I feel like a fraud,” Yankl said to his host. “Please allow me to leave,” but his host merely replied “Stay tonight. Perhaps tomorrow your stories will return.” This was not to happen, and Reb Yankl made to leave.
“No,” the baal habays pleaded, “stay. You don’t know how much you presence here means to me.” And so he stayed. And the next morning he could still remember nothing. And again his baal habays insisted he stay.
But on the third day he refused to stay a moment longer. The baal habays was prepared for this. “Please, Reb Yankl,” his host said. “Let my driver take you some ways,” and Yankl relented. He sat in unaccustomed comfort and wallowed in unaccustomed humiliation. The coach passed through town and country when suddenly a story came to Yankl.
“Driver,” he called. “Turn around! Quickly!” He repeated the story to himself constantly. Not a word would he forget. As the coach returned, Yankl ran to the baal habays and said “I have remembered a story. I must tell it now. It’s a strange story, and I don’t know how it ends, but you will not have heard it. Only the Heilege Yid and I were there, no one else can know of it, and from then until now I haven’t thought of it.”
This 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. One night, the Besht woke me and brought me with him on a journey. It was unusual, because it was only me he brought. We faced each other as his carriage journeyed on, curtains covered windows so I could not see out, wheels rattled along road, but soon all I heard was the wind. Who knows how long, but I finally again heard wheels rattle on road.
When the Besht drew the curtains, I saw an unfamiliar country, strange buildings, and a great square with more people than I could count. Our carriage continued on to a road built with broken dreams. When it stopped it seemed to me that every door was barred and every window shut tight. “Yankl,” the Besht said, “this is Jew Street.” He left the carriage and knocked rudely on each door in turn.
“I am Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as the Baal Shem Tov,” he called out. “Open the door!” The whispers we heard were as shouts. Mishugene Yidn! Go! Are you crazy? Finally, though, a door opened a bit, and up we went a narrow stairway. On the second floor was a window nailed against the shutters, but the Heilege Yid pushed against the shutters until the window was open. Our guide shivered. “Do you know what day it is?! They will kill the first Jew they see today. We will die!”
My master pointed out over the square and said “We are safe.” I looked upon the crowd. There was a large dais at one end, filled with they who must have been that nation’s priests. Among them I saw the their High Priest. He arose to speak. “Yankl,” the Baal Shem Tov called to me, “bring me that man.”
Our guide cried “No, they will kill him!” but on I went. I would walk on hot coals for my master, so out I went, to the square, among the people standing shoulder to shoulder, and my path was unblocked. I soon stood looking upon their High Priest. In Yiddish, or maybe it was Polish or Ukranian, I spoke to him. “My master, Yisroel ben Eliezer, known as Baal Shem Tov, would speak with you,” I said. I was amazed when he replied in a language I understood.
“I will be there quite soon,” he said, and again my path was unblocked as I returned. “Tell him to come now,” the Besht told me in anger, and back I went a third time. The High Priest saw me, stopped speaking, and followed me back to the Baal Shem Tov. They went into seclusion, they were alone for a good, long time, and thus my story ends.
“Reb Yankl,” the baal habays said, “I know how the story ends. I am the High Priest. This is my story.”
I was raised frum, but there came a time when I wanted things a frummer Yid could not have. I discovered I could get along if I went along, and so I did. I forgot I was a Jew one day at a time, and soon the day came that I no longer forgot, for one needs to remember before he forgets. That was the day I became a priest. I became their High Priest at the first Act of Faith Festival, for that is the name of our festival today. By my words I had a power of life and death. Not just against Jews, as you think, but against anyone whose faith I thought differed from mine, from ours.
A night came when I dreamt of people seated at a long table in a crowded room. It is the way of dreams, and so I knew the people were my ancestors. They looked at a thin, dried object. It is the way of dreams, and so I knew this was my soul. “Is it not clear,” an ancestor spoke, “that this one is dried and brittle?” It is the way of dreams, and so I know it was the Baal Shem Tov who answered. He touched the soul and water replaced drought. “Is it not clear,” he replied, “that there is hope?” I awoke, for it is the way of dreams, and I knew that the Besht would intercede for me. I wasn’t quite ready to give up my power when you strode forth the first time. The second time, though, I was ready, and the time spent with the Besht was time spent learning how to redeem myself. He made no promise to me that day. “It’s a great sin,” he said, “and it needs a great atonement.”
I sold everything at his command. “One third to the needy,” he instructed me, “one third to buy your way out of the priesthood, and with the final third? Find a distant village, set up a home, and make certain everyone knows they are welcome. Years may go by. Perhaps you will earn your redemption by ensuring others are taught, nourished, and clothed? On the day you hear someone tell your story you will know that your redemption is granted.” The day you came to my home, Reb Yankl, I knew who you were. I recognised you. When you stood tongue-tied, I knew you had come to tell me my story.
The baal habays sold everything. He gave half to Reb Yankl, who stopped wandering and started a family.