The Baal Shem Tov
A Letter Opened 16 years later
LOST IN THE MAIL FOR 16 YEARS
Some 300 years ago, there lived an affluent man named Avigdor. He once brought a large sum of money to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the chassidic movement, to be distributed to the poor on his behalf.
Accepting the contribution graciously, the Baal Shem Tov (literally, “Master of a Good Name”) inquired if perhaps Avigdor would like a blessing in return. After all, the Baal Shem Tov was renowned not only as a great Torah scholar, but also as a righteous individual who had the power to give blessings.
“No thanks!” replied Avigdor arrogantly. “I am very wealthy; I own many properties, and I have servants, plenty of delicacies and everything else I want. I have more than I need!”
“You are very fortunate,” replied the Baal Shem Tov. “Perhaps you would like a blessing for your family?”
“I have a large and healthy family of which I am very proud; they are a credit to me. I don’t need—or want—anything.”
“Well, then perhaps you can help me. May I request one thing of you?” inquired Rabbi Israel. “Can you please deliver a letter to the head of the charity committee in Brody?”
“Certainly,” responded Avigdor. “I live in Brody and would be happy to assist you in this matter.”
The Baal Shem Tov took out a pen and paper, wrote a letter, sealed it in an envelope and gave it to Avigdor. Avigdor took the letter, placed it in his jacket pocket and returned home. But he had so many projects on his mind that by the time he arrived in Brody he had completely forgotten about the entire encounter with Rabbi Israel.
Sixteen years passed, and the wheel of fortune suddenly turned. All of Avigdor’s assets and properties were lost or destroyed. Floods ruined his fields of crops; fires destroyed his forests. Calamity followed calamity. He was left penniless.
Creditors took his house and everything he owned. He was forced to sell even his clothing to feed his children.
One day, while cleaning out the pockets of an old jacket he planned to sell, he found a letter—the letter that he had received from the Baal Shem Tov 16 years earlier! In a flash, he recalled his visit and his haughtiness when he thought he had everything. With tears in his eyes, he rushed to finally fulfill his mission and deliver the letter. The envelope was addressed to a Mr. Tzaddok, chairman of the charity committee of Brody.
He ran into the street and encountered one of his friends. Grabbing his arm, he said, “Where can I find Mr. Tzaddok?”
“Mr. Tzaddok? You mean Mr. Tzaddok, the chairman of the charity committee?”
“Yes, I must see him immediately!” replied Avigdor.
“He is in the synagogue,” said Avigdor’s friend. “I was there only a few minutes ago. Mr. Tzaddok is indeed a lucky man. Just this morning he was elected chairman of the charity committee.”
“Tell me more about Mr. Tzaddok,” insisted Avigdor.
Willing to oblige, Avigdor’s friend continued, “Mr. Tzaddok was born and raised here in Brody. A tailor by profession, he was always down on his luck, never able to make a decent living. He was hardly able to support his family, and they always lived in abject poverty. He sat in the back of the synagogue, and no one ever took notice of him. Despite working many hours, he never earned much; it was hard for him to scrape together enough money for even a loaf of bread for his family.
“Recently, however, the tide changed. Mr. Tzaddok was introduced to a local nobleman, and he made uniforms for all his servants. The nobleman was very satisfied with Mr. Tzaddok’s craftsmanship, and his business started to pick up. He even received an order for 5,000 uniforms for the army. He became a rich man and gained respect in the eyes of the community. He did not forget his former poverty, and gave generously to many, taking an active role in communal affairs. Just this morning, he was unanimously elected chairman of the charity committee.”
Hearing this story, Avigdor hurried to the synagogue and found Mr. Tzaddok busy perusing the many requests for financial assistance. He handed Mr. Tzaddok the letter. Together they read the words of the Baal Shem Tov, penned 16 years earlier:
Dear Mr. Tzaddok,
The man who brought this letter is named Avigdor. He was once very wealthy, but is now very poor. He has paid for his haughtiness. Since just this morning you were elected chairman of the charity committee, I request that you do all you can to assist him, as he has a large family to support. He will once again become successful, and this time he will be more suited to success. In case you doubt my words, I give you the following sign: Your wife is expecting a baby, and today she will give birth to a boy.
They had hardly concluded reading the letter when someone burst into the synagogue and exclaimed, “Mazel tov, Mr. Tzaddok! Your wife just had a baby boy!”
Thanks to the Baal Shem Tov’s foresight, Avigdor once again became very affluent. This time, he remained humble and was admired by all.
- Story as retold by Shaul Wertheimer
Read by Peter Malakoff