Shavuot Baal Shem Tov Story

The holiday of Shavuot, where we mark the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, begins this Tuesday evening (May 14, 2013), and continues until Thursday evening. Shavuot is also the yahrtzeit (anniversary of passing) of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement.

In honor of the Baal Shem Tov, I share with you the following story, which I hope you will enjoy.

Moshe was an inkeeper in a village belonging to a Polish nobleman, Count Tadeush Vissotzky. He was one of many Jews who rented various properties from the Count. Before Moshe, his father had rented the inn from the Count’s father. He was, in a sense, grandfathered in.

As with any business, some years were better than others. His income depended largely on the weather; during harsh winters he had fewer travelers, and dry summers were no more favorable.

When it was hard to pay the annual rent, the Count’s father was always understanding, and would graciously extend an extension to Moshe’s father. Not only was the Count’s son and current landlord not so accommodating, but he also enjoyed hosting opulent parties and would frequently spend way beyond his means.

One year, when time came to pay the rent, Moshe arrived at the Count’s home and requested an extension. Begrudgingly, the Count gave him six months to pay in full.

Six months came and went, but the flow of travelers to Moshe’s inn was sparse, and he still did not have the means to pay. Another year passed, and he now owed the Count two years’ rent.

Moshe came to the Count and pleaded for another extension. The Count was enraged, and warned Moshe that if he didn’t pay up the entire debt on the first day of the next year, he would kick him out, jail his family, and take the inn away from him forever.

Moshe returned home and told his wife the sad story.

“Do you recall when we once hosted a traveler who told us about a very holy man who lives in the nearby Mezibuzh?”

“Yes, I believe so. Are you referring to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov?” inquired Moshe.

“That’s him! Remember the miracle stories the traveler told us about him? How he has helped so many people? You should go see him, I bet he can help us!” said his wife.

Now, Moshe didn’t believe half of the miracle stories he had heard about the Baal Shem Tov; he was not convinced that he should make the journey to Mezibuzh. Despite his hesitations, his wife continued to urge him to go to the Baal Shem Tov.

Realizing that he had nothing to lose, he finally obliged.

As soon as he arrived in the Baal Shem Tov’s presence, he felt a certain calming effect. He began to cry profusely and unburdened himself to the great Baal Shem Tov.

“Trust in the Almighty G-d,” said the Baal Shem Tov. Handing him a silver coin, he continued, “At the next market day in your home town, a peasant will approach you and offer his wares for sale. Buy it immediately and then come back to me for further instructions.”

Moshe arrived back home, already having lost the sense of comfort he felt while in the presence of the holy rabbi. How could the Baal Shem Tov possibly help? he wondered.

His wife said, “Do what the Baal Shem Tov said! What have you got to lose?”

The next week, Moshe went to the market. A young peasant approached him and offered him a lambskin in exchange for one silver coin. Moshe handed over the coin he had received from the Baal Shem Tov, and took the lambskin.

He returned home and after telling his wife of what had transpired, he set out to journey to the Baal Shem Tov, as he had been instructed.

When he arrived, he showed the Baal Shem Tov the lambskin he had purchased. Running his fingers over it, the Baal Shem Tov exclaimed, “Remarkable! A good purchase, indeed. Listen carefully: next week, Count Vissotzky is making a large birthday party for himself; many people will bring him gifts. Give him this lambskin as a birthday present.”

Arriving home, Moshe’s sad demeanor was apparent. “A lambskin for a birthday gift? The Count is sure to receive many lavish gifts… my gift will look paltry in comparison! The Baal Shem Tov said this was a remarkable lambskin, but it looks quite plain to me. It is not even large enough to make a fur coat!”

“Didn’t everything the Baal Shem Tov say happen exactly as he said?” said his wife. “Who are we to question this holy man? Bring the lambskin as a birthday gift to the Count!”

When the day arrived, people from all over began arriving for the party. Observing the steady flow of people and their gifts, Moshe became discouraged.

He nevertheless set out for the castle, lambskin in hand. When he arrived, a guard said, “Moshe, you brought a gift?! Let’s see what it is!” Upon seeing the lambskin, the guard grabbed it from Moshe’s hands, and instructed Moshe to wait.

Bringing the lambskin to the Count, the guard said, “This is a birthday gift from Moshe the Inkeeper!”

“What a shameless gift from this miserable Jew!” said the Count. Embarrassed in front of his guests, he told the guard to throw Moshe into the cellar, to be dealt with later.

Some of the Count’s guests — having already had a few drinks of alcohol — began to mock him. One of the guests was looking closely at the lambskin and suddenly proclaimed, “Remarkable!”

Gathering around him, the guests took a closer look, and they saw the most amazing thing: In the middle of the lambskin, there was a beautiful pattern which spelled out the Count’s name, his father’s name, his date of birth and his family coat-of-arms.

“Incredible!” one of them said. “I’ve never seen anything like it!” said another.

After gazing at the wondrous lambskin, the Count ordered that they bring Moshe before him. Not knowing what they had discovered, Moshe was petrified of what the Count had in store for him.

Moshe began pleading for mercy.

“Where did you get this lambskin?!” shouted the Count.

“Please have mercy, I didn’t mean any harm!” responded Moshe.

The Count assured him that he would not harm him or his family, and that he merely wanted to know which artist had made such a stunning pattern on the lambskin.

“Artist? I don’t know what you mean,” responded Moshe. He then proceeded to tell the Count the entire story of how he had visited the Baal Shem Tov, received a silver coin, purchased the first thing that came his way in the market, and finally how he had brought the lamb skin to the Count.

Everyone realized that the Baal Shem Tov was behind this. They gave Moshe gifts to bring to the Baal Shem Tov so they could receive his blessings. The Count annulled Moshe’s debt, and declared that he would never have to pay rent again.

Brandishing the lambskin, he said “This will make a beautiful fur hat!”

Since Moshe had now received so many gifts, the Count ordered his carriage to take him home, telling his servants to do whatever Moshe would request.

Arriving home, he told his wife the miraculous story, then continued straight on his way to see the Baal Shem Tov.

Shabbat Shalom, and this Shavuot, may we all receive the Torah with joy — and internalize it!