A man who had acted against the Torah all his adult life suddenly started to be terrified by the thought of his fate in the World to Come. Much to his own surprise, he found himself entertaining thoughts of repentance, even though he realized how difficult it would be for him. He decided to discuss it with Rabbi Moshe de Leon, but that he would do so without actually committing himself.
...there is no cure for the man’s countless intentional transgressions other than an early death.
Entering into conversation with the great Kabbalist, he introduced the matter in joking fashion. He told him that he had a serious disease, and wondered if there was any medicine for it. The sage looked at the well-known sinner of 13th-century Spain penetratingly for a long moment, and then replied that there is no cure for the man’s countless intentional transgressions other than an early death.
The man’s eyes widened. Then he said soberly, “If I accept upon myself this judgment, and all the suffering that will accompany it, will I then have a share in the World to Come?”
The Kabbalist assured him that he would, but the man insisted, “Swear to me that I will be in the same place as you.”
R. Moshe de Leon promised that when the time came, he would do his best in Paradise to keep him close.
Hearing this oath, and believing it, the man stood very still, visibly shaken. He left, and for a period of time tried to forget the great sage’s words, but without success. He could not get them out of his head. His former way of life now seemed empty and unfulfilling. In the end, he returned to R. Moshe de Leon.
“All right,” he said finally in a low but firm voice, “I agree. I will take upon myself whatever the rabbi decrees upon me.”
“Follow me,” the rabbi said, and strode off to his study hall.
As the pan heated up, the lead liquefied and bubbled.
As soon as they arrived, he sent for some pieces of lead and a bellows. He fanned a huge flame with the bellows, and held the lead over it in a pan. As the pan heated up, the lead liquefied and bubbled. He then called over all the men studying Torah, young and old, and sat the man on a bench near the bellows and showed him the boiling lead, explaining that this was one of the four methods of biblical execution.
“Confess all your sins,” he intoned. “Acknowledge G‑d’s majesty sincerely and wholeheartedly; say ‘Shema Yisrael...echad’; and accept this death in atonement for all of your sins and having rebelled against your Creator and angering Him your whole life.”
The Jew sprang up from his seat, and did exactly as the master had commanded him, the whole time crying bitter and powerful sobs. His obvious sincerity affected everyone present.
The rabbi moved to stand next to him and told him to sit down. “Open your mouth wide, and I will pour into it this boiling lead,” he said severely. He covered the man’s eyes with his handkerchief and tied it securely. “Prepare yourself,” he warned.
The crowd of Torah scholars stood around them, shocked and terrified. The man gritted himself and stretched open his mouth as wide as he could. R. Moshe de Leon swiftly removed from the folds of his robe a jar of rose honey, and leveled a spoonful of it on the blindfolded man’s tongue. “May your sins depart and your crimes be atoned,” he recited loudly.
I can’t bear my evilness any longer; why should I live?
As soon as he tasted the honey and realized what had happened, the man screamed in pain and outrage. “Rebbe, Master, what did you do to me? Why didn’t you kill me? Why did you deceive me? Destroy my body just as you promised, in honor of our Creator, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. I can’t bear my evilness any longer; why should I live? And I haven’t suffered at all—not a blow, not a wound, not even a drop of blood. Please! Do it to me.”
The rabbi put a hand on his shoulder and did his best to calm him. “Dear friend,” he began gently, “don’t panic and don’t be agitated. G‑d desires the change of heart of the wicked, not their death. Your return and repentance have been accepted on high. Now you have to live a new life of purity and righteousness.”
From that moment on, the Jew was a completely different person. He spent all of his time in the study hall, totally attached to R. Moshe de Leon, drinking thirstily as much of his master’s teachings as he could. He prayed and repented, and studied day and night, eating very little and hardly speaking to anyone.
Years went by. The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe de Leon was taken to the heavenly yeshivah. His baal teshuvah (repentant, successful returner) was inconsolable. He prayed that G‑d do him the kindness to take him from this life and restore him to his irreplaceable master. Day after day he prayed and pleaded thus. Rivers of tears flowed from his eyes and heart. Finally, his request was granted. He took ill and never again rose from his sickbed. One day soon thereafter, he suddenly sat erect and called out, “Clear the way for our teacher and master, Rabbi Moshe de Leon, who comes now to fulfill his oath to me and escort me to his chamber in Paradise.”
A few seconds later, his soul departed to its eternal reward. It is said—and some even saw in a dream—that he indeed merited to study Torah in the heavenly academy with his beloved teacher.
[Translated/adapted from HaMidrasha #17.]
Rabbi Moshe de Leon (1238–1305) of Guadalajara, Spain, is best known as the first publisher of the Zohar (the teachings of the second-century Mishnaic sage, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, as recorded by his students, which constitute the primary text of Kabbalah). He is also the author of the Kabbalistic work Shekel HaKodesh.
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