Feivel was a simple Jew. He had a little farm in the Polish countryside, and lived a meager life with his wife and four children. But he had a dream.

From the minute he heard about the Baal Shem Tov, he longed to see him. For years he saved and scrimped, until finally, this year he had enough for the journey and for his family’s livelihood till he returned.

Hundreds, even thousands of chassidim would be there together...

The weather smelled of winter. It was the Jewish month of Elul, the month of teshuvah (spiritual return). Then there would be the month of Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah! Yom Kippur! Sukkot! Simchat Torah! Hundreds, even thousands of chassidim would be there together, learning, praying, hearing the words of the holy Besht, and seeing his holy face. He couldn’t wait!

After a five-day journey cramped in a wagon with ten other chassidim, he finally arrived in the town of Medzhibuzh.

What he had heard was right. Even the sky and the air were different here; every molecule seemed to be shouting, “Rosh Hashanah is coming! The King of the Universe is near!”

He was so excited! Everyone was heading into the shul, and he followed, suitcase in hand. In another minute he would see him. He would see the Baal Shem Tov in person!

But he was to be in for a big surprise.

The room was packed with hundreds of chassidim, when suddenly everyone became silent; the rebbe was entering!

The Besht appeared from a side door, gave a quick penetrating look around the room, and suddenly his eyes fixed on . . . Feivel!

“Feivel. Feivel! Fool! Dolt! What are you doing here?”

Feivel was in awe. This was the moment he had been waiting for. But why was the rebbe staring at him? Everything was dreamlike; he vaguely felt that he was the center of attention, but all he saw was the master’s eyes gazing deeply at him. Suddenly the Besht lowered his head in deep thought, or perhaps prayer, then looked up once again and called out: “Feivel. Feivel! Fool! Dolt! What are you doing here?”

The silence was deafening; the chassidim were afraid to breathe. Something very strange was going on; something was clearly wrong.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” exclaimed the Besht. “How dare you come into a holy place like this!”

Feivel was confused; his head was spinning. He tried to move, but there was nowhere to go.

“Leave!” shouted the Besht. “Leave here immediately!”

He started moving backwards, afraid to turn his back on the holy man, but afraid to stay even another second. His heart was thumping, and a cold sweat clung to his forehead.

He felt the door at his back, turned the knob and stumbled outside, back first, into the street. He was crying, disoriented. He stood up, brushed himself off, and walked zombie-like over to the carriage stand. There he paid for the five-day journey home, climbed in, and was on his way back in a dizzy stupor.

After a few hours the wagon stopped. “What’s this?” he asked. “Why are we stopping?”

“What? Never rode in a wagon before, Jew?” answered the driver. “It’s nighttime, and we can’t travel at night! Here, look outside. See? It’s night, and here’s the inn. We’ll stay here.”

Poor Feivel was so bewildered by his encounter with the Besht, he didn’t notice anything. He got out of the carriage, still clutching his old suitcase, and dragged himself into the inn.

To sleep was out of the question; he was trying to digest what had happened. He sat at a table in a corner, ordered a beer and tried to remember. Maybe he did do some sort of sin . . . maybe it was a punishment. It’s true he didn’t learn much Torah. But that couldn’t be what the Besht expelled him for; the Besht loved every Jew, even unlearned ones.

He vaguely heard the sound of another carriage stopping, and then joyous singing from outside. It got louder and louder, until the inn door burst open and a group of chassidim came pouring in. They were just hours away from the Besht, boisterous and happy.

“Give us vodka!” sang one of the group. “Tomorrow we’ll be with the rebbe!”

“Give us vodka!” sang one of the group. “Tomorrow we’ll be with the rebbe!”

“Oy!” groaned poor Feivel bitterly. “Oy, oy! ‘The rebbe’!” And he began to weep quietly to himself.

Feivel was sure that the chassidim didn’t notice him sitting in the shadows. He watched as they pushed a few tables together, sat down, and began pouring small cups of vodka for one another, toasting l’chayim, saying words of Torah and singing.

But all this joy only made poor Feivel more depressed. Head drooping, he was looking down at the table, when suddenly he felt two chassidim grab him under the arms, lift him to his feet and pull him over to their table.

He tried to resist, to protest, to beg them to leave him alone, but to no avail. They had decided that he must be one of the misnagdim (opponents of the Besht)—how else to explain the long face?—and that they had an obligation to transform him.

It wasn’t long before they forced him to take a drink and say l’chayim with them, then another. And in another few minutes, he too was singing and dancing—and the hours passed like minutes.

“Aha! What was that? A rooster crowed—it is already dawn!”

The chassidim paid for the drinks, piled back into the wagon (accompanied by a very drunk Feivel still clutching his old suitcase), shouted, “We’re going to the rebbe!” and began another song.

Five hours later they were in Mezibuz, out of the wagon and on their way to the Baal Shem Tov’s shul. Two of them had their arms under Feivel’s, and were “carrying” him with them.

“Ah yes!” mumbled Feivel, not realizing that he was back in the exact same room from which the Besht had evicted him less than twenty-four hours ago.

...at that instant, it was like someone threw a bucket of freezing water on him.

Suddenly the room fell silent, the side door opened, the Baal Shem Tov entered the room, and his eye again caught Feivel. Feivel looked up, his eyes met the Baal Shem Tov’s, and at that instant it was like someone threw a bucket of freezing water on him.

He snapped to rigid attention, and then began changing colors; red from shame, white from fear, green from dizziness. He wanted to run, to back out the door, but he was too confused.

“Welcome, Feivel!” shouted the tzaddik (holy man). “My beloved Feivel! Where have you been? How I’ve worried about you.”

Now Feivel was really mixed up. His mind was spinning like a merry-go-round. “What’s going on here?” he thought to himself. “Maybe yesterday never happened, or maybe now I’m dreaming?” Then the Besht beckoned him to come, and the chassidim moved aside, making a path for him.

He took Feivel’s hand and explained. “My dear Feivel, you didn’t know it, but yesterday, when you entered, the angel of death entered with you. I instantly realized that you wouldn’t live to see Rosh Hashanah.

“I tried praying for mercy, but to no avail; it had been decreed in heaven that your time had come. I had to act fast. It is known that embarrassing someone is public is like killing him, so I spoke harsh words to that dark messenger—words that I knew you, and everyone else, would think were directed at you. I thought that maybe shaming you would fulfill the heavenly decree, but it didn’t; the angel was now dancing over your head.

“So,” I thought to myself, “maybe with the angel of death it will help to be smart. I figured that if I told you to leave, you’d probably catch the first carriage back home; and your home is a five-day journey away, so you would have to stop at an inn at night. When you got to that inn, I reasoned that you probably wouldn’t want to sleep, so you’d probably sit awake at one of the tables all night.

“Now, the chassidim on their way here also aren’t able to travel at night, and would have to stop at that inn as well, and they also won’t be able to sleep because they’ll be too happy. For sure they wouldn’t be able to bear seeing someone sad like you, so probably they would try to cheer you up by making you sit with them and have a little vodka. Now, when the chassidim drink vodka, they don’t just make a blessing, they say ‘l’chayim,’ which means ‘To Life!’ Right?

“Maybe you don’t know it, Feivel, but according to the Torah, when three observant Jews sit together, they have the power of a judicial court. In other words, when they all raised their cups to you and declared: ‘To Life!’ this was like a legal decision for life, which overrode the power of the previous heavenly decree (because the Torah was given primarily to humans, not angels).

“And I see that it worked: the angel of death has departed. Welcome to Medzhibuzh!”

Adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from the rendition of Rabbi Tuvia Bolton, in his weekly e-mail for the yeshivah which he heads, //ohrtmimim.org.

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer (18 Elul 1698–6 Sivan 1760), the Baal Shem Tov [“master of the good name”], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed the Chassidic movement, and his own identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his thirty-sixth birthday, 18 Elul 1734. He wrote no books, although many works claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava’at Harivash, published by Kehot.

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