The Golden Mountain, by Meyer Levin, , at sacred-texts.com
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On the day of his death Rabbi Israel called all of his followers about him, and gave each of them his future task. Some of the students he sent to other masters, some he made into leaders, and some he instructed to return home.
But to Reb Yacob he said, "After my death, you must go wandering from one place to another, and wherever you go, repeat my words, and tell the deeds that I did in my life-time."
Reb Yacob was not satisfied. "Why have you assigned me to a life of wandering and poverty?" he asked.
The Baal Shem Tov said, "Yours will not be a life of poverty, for you will be highly rewarded for what you tell of me. And when the time comes for your wandering to cease, a sign will be given you."
After the death of the Baal Shem Tov, each of his disciples took himself to the task the Master had meted out to him. And Reb Yacob, with his pack on his back and his staff in his hand, began to wander.
Wherever he went, people gathered about him. And he told them stories of the wonderful deeds of the Baal Shem Tov. The stories he knew were without number.
In every tavern in Poland, and in every little synagogue, Reb Yacob was known and welcome. In the taverns, he was given food and lodging; in the synagogues,
money was collected for him. In this way, it turned out that his fate was not a poor one.
When he had wandered several years, Reb Yacob heard of a nobleman in Italy who lived for nothing else but to listen to stories about the Baal Shem Tov. "For every story that is told him," it was said, "he gives a gold ducat."
"I will tell him all the tales I know," thought Reb Yacob, "and then I'll be a rich man!"
So Reb Yacob took all the money in his possession and bought himself a horse. On the horse, he set out for Rome.
For six weeks he rode. And while he rode, he gathered in his mind all the tales he knew about the Baal Shem Tov, and all the sayings that he had heard from the mouth of Rabbi Israel.
On a Thursday night he came into Rome. He asked for the house of the nobleman, and he was shown a great palace that stood in a park surrounded by high gates.
When it became known that he had come with stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the Baron himself ran out to meet him, and brought him as a guest into his palace, and gave him a large chamber with a beautiful bed.
"On Sabbath, when we are seated around the table, you will tell us your stories about the Baal Shem Tov," said the Baron.
Reb Yacob didn't know what to do with himself. Wherever he turned, soft-footed servants bowed to him. He was honoured as a king.
"What should so rich a Baron want with stories of Rabbi Israel!" he wondered.
When the time came for the Sabbath meal, Reb Yacob was led into a great banqueting hall. Along the entire length of the hall was an endless white table. Around the table sat chassidim. And at the head of the table sat the Baron.
It was already known that a man had come to the palace who remembered every tale that was told about the Baal Shem Tov. As Reb Yacob came into the room, an awesome silence fell about the table.
He was placed at the right hand of the Baron.
The Baron said, "Did you ever see the Baal Shem Tov?"
"I saw him every day," said Reb Yacob. "He was my teacher."
"Tell me," said the nobleman, "what did he look like?"
Reb Yacob tried to bring the image of his Master before his eye. But strangely, he could not see him as he had been. So he said, "Like no other man."
Then he was frightened at what he had said, and he remained silent.
The chassidim ate the Sabbath meal.
At the end of the meal, the Baron said, "Now we will listen to Reb Yacob."
Reb Yacob opened his mouth to speak, and he could not think of a single word to say. He could not remember anything about the Baal Shem Tov, not one word that Rabbi Israel had uttered, and not one deed that he had done!
Reb Yacob looked about the table, and saw into all the eager faces, and he looked at the Baron, and he was terribly ashamed.
At last he said, "Let another speak first."
Then the chassidim began to tell stories of the Baal Shem Tov. Though Reb Yacob had heard these stories and had himself recited them hundreds and thousands of times, tonight they were as though he had never known them before.
After each chassid spoke, the Baron said to Reb Yacob, "Do you remember anything now?"
And Reb Yacob became more and more ashamed.
All of the chassidim had spoken. The hour was late. Then the Baron said, "Perhaps tomorrow, after the second meal of Sabbath, you will remember."
So it was at the second meal, and so it was at the end of the Sabbath.
Reb Yacob wanted to run away, he wanted to die. All during that day he thought, "The moment that Sabbath is ended, I will go away from here."
But he did not have another copper in his purse, and he was far from home, and he had forgotten everything he ever knew.
At the end of the Sabbath, the Baron said, "Stay another day. Perhaps something will come into your mind."
Reb Yacob sat all day alone in his room, but nothing came into his mind.
And still the Baron begged him to remain, and though he was dreadfully ashamed of himself, he remained another day, and a third day. And still he was served as though he were a king.
After three days he could no longer endure himself, and he said, "Let me go away."
The Baron brought him a purse of gold, and said, "Take this with you. And if you remember anything, return."
Then the Baron called his own carriage, and placed Reb Yacob in it, and instructed the coachman to take him as far as he desired to go.
When the carriage had started, something suddenly came into the mind of Reb Yacob, and he cried out, "Wait! I have thought of a story!"
The coachman turned the carriage. The Baron came running to the gate. And as Reb Yacob got out of the carriage, and as he walked with the Baron to the palace, Reb Yacob related what he remembered, for fear that it would go out of his mind.
"It is strange," he said, "that the one story I remember is something I never before remembered. And I do not even know whether I can recall the whole story. But I shall tell you as much as I know, for I am certain that you can never have heard this story from anyone else."
And this is the story he told:
"Once, in the week of Passover, the Baal Shem Tov arose, harnessed his horse to his wagon, and called to me saying, 'We must go on a long journey.' We got into the wagon, and we rode all night, and all night he was veiled in a terrible silence, for his Will was occupied in destroying the distance of space.
"In the morning, I saw that we were come to a city in Turkey.
"The streets of the city were festooned with banners as for a great holiday. People swarmed out of the houses, they were dressed in their holiday clothes. We drove through the festival streets. And suddenly we came to one street that was utterly deserted. It was in the midst of the city, and yet there were no banners
displayed on this street, and not a person stirred upon its walks. The doors of all the houses on this street were closed, and every window was tightly shuttered. Every gate was locked. Not even a dog was seen alive upon that street.
"That was the street of the Jews.
"Rabbi Israel drove his wagon down that street. Before the largest of the houses, he stopped. He got down, and went to the door, and knocked. No one answered. He knocked again. Then we heard movements from within the house. He knocked a third time, and a voice screamed.
"Then he said, 'Open, in the name of the Unutterable Name!'
"Footsteps crept close to the door. Then the voice of an aged woman, in a frightened whisper, said, 'Who speaks?'
"He said, 'It is Rabbi Israel, son of Eleazer.'
"Slowly we heard the turning of the keys, one after another, in the many locks that were on the great door. At last the door was opened a crack, and an eye looked upon us, and saw that we were truly Jews.
"Then the door was hastily opened wide enough for our passage; a hand reached out and quickly drew us into the house. The door was swiftly shut, and locked with all its locks.
"The old woman said, 'Do you want to be put to death! Do you want all of us to be destroyed?'
"The Baal Shem Tov answered her, 'Have no fear.'
"It was very dark in that house. Rabbi Israel went to the window to draw back the curtains. The woman gasped in terror, and ran after him to prevent him.
[paragraph continues] 'Rabbi,' she cried, 'do you not know that it is the Christian passover? In this city, on this day each year a Jew is taken and burned. If any Jew is found in the streets of the city, or if a Jew even shows himself in the window of his house, he is taken and burned on the cross in the market-place! And if no Jew shows himself, a Jew is chosen by lot, and sacrificed. Rabbi, you will bring death upon yourself, and upon this house!'
"But the Baal Shem Tov answered, 'Let me do as I must do.' Then he drew back the curtain from the largest of the windows, and opened the shutters that barred the wall. The window looked out on the market-place. And the Baal Shem stood in the window, and watched what was happening there.
"A great scaffold was erected in the centre of the square. On the scaffold was a Christian altar of prayer, and behind that there was a great wooden cross, and around the base of the cross were faggots piled ready for the burning of a victim.
"As we watched, a procession began to wind through the square.
"First came the ranks of horsemen, noblemen in armour of silver and of gold, bearing trumpets with silken banners.
"Then came the governors of the city, riding in splendid carriages, with wheels that were set with jewels.
"Then came the priests, in embroidered and gilded robes, bearing the marks of their office. And among them walked one, of higher office than all the rest, he carried a staff that dazzled all over with diamonds.
"And after the priests came music-makers, and
soldiers carrying lances, and richly attired people, and people of every sort.
"The Baal Shem showed me the mightiest of the priests, who carried the staff encrusted with diamonds, and said to me, 'That man is the bishop. Go down to him and tell him that Rabbi Israel awaits him in this house.'
"I went to the door. The woman cried, 'You are lost! They will seize you for their victim! They will tear you to pieces, and burn you!'
"But as the Baal Shem Tov had bidden me, so I would do, even though it were to walk into fire. I went out through the door, and I went down the deserted street of the Jews. No one molested me. I walked through the crowds, and across the market-place, and went through the ranks of the soldiers, and the monks, and the horsemen, and I came to the foot of the altar.
"The Bishop had just gone up on the platform. He was about to begin the service.
"I called out to him, 'Bishop, I have a message for you alone!'
"He said, 'Come up and tell it to me.'
"Then I went up on the platform where the wooden cross stood. I walked in front of the cross, and came to the Bishop. Then I spoke in his ear, whispering: 'Rabbi Israel, son of Eleazer, commands you to come to him at once!'
"The Bishop started. I thought he became frightened. Then, with every mark of respect, he said to me, 'Go back and tell the Rabbi that I will surely come to him in two hours' time.'
"I went down from the platform, again made
my way through the midst of the crowd, and walked up the street of the Jews. Rabbi Israel stood waiting at the door of the house. I told him what the Bishop had said. The Baal Shem Tov became very angry. 'Go back at once!' he cried. 'Tell him he must come to me this instant!'
"The people in the house were in terror. They clutched at my arms, they cried, 'Don't go! They are about to begin the service! Once you escaped, but the second time they will seize you!'
"Nevertheless I went again through the streets and through the assembled multitude. The Bishop was in the midst of reading the service. He was talking, and his arms were raised. But I went straight toward him. When he saw me his arms fell. Before I had time to utter a word, he cried, 'I am coming at once!'
"Then he said to the people, 'The service is ended!' And he came down from his place, and walked quickly away with me. I led him to the house where Rabbi Israel waited. We went into the house. Rabbi Israel received the Bishop, and took him into a separate room. They were closed in the room for three hours. Then Rabbi Israel came out and said to me, 'We are ready to go home.'
"We got into the carriage and rode home."
"That is as much as I know of the story," said Reb Yacob.
But even before he had ended speaking, the Baron fell on his neck and hugged him and covered him with joyous embraces. "I will give you half of my fortune!" he cried. "You have delivered my soul from torture!"
Then the Baron said to Reb Yacob, "I was that Bishop to whom you spoke. Know, that I am descended from a long line of learned and holy rabbis. But when I was a young student, the evil spirit in me became strong, the Enemy entered into me and induced me to give up my holy studies, and to adopt the Christian faith. I became a priest. The Christians were proud that I had become one of them, and they did me great honour. They advanced me, and gave me high positions to hold. And always as I became more powerful, I became more cruel to my former brethren, and the more cruel I became, the more honour and gold the Christians showered upon me. At last I was made Bishop over that great city. And every year at Easter I burned a Jew upon the cross.
"Then, one night in a dream I saw a number of holy rabbis. They sat around a long table. And at the head of the table was the great Tsadik, ten times holier than all the others. And I saw that the rabbis around the table were my ancestors, though the Tsadik at the head of the table was not one of them.
"And on that table lay a poor shrivelled soul brought there for judgement. The rabbis were all of one accord, that the soul was doomed to eternal damnation, for it was entirely black, the evil spirit had utterly destroyed the good spirit within it. Then the Tsadik spoke to them and said, 'Let him repent, and the Gates of Heaven are not closed to him!' The Tsadik touched the shrivelled soul with his little finger, and where he had touched it, a spot of white appeared. And the little spot of whiteness spread, and the soul became paler, its wrinkles began to unfold.
"That is all that I saw. But I heard my ancestors speaking among themselves, and I heard them utter the name of the Tsadik. His name was Rabbi Israel, son of Eleazer."
Then the Baron told me of that terrible day. "On the day of the sacrifice, I was filled with abhorrence for my task. I did not want to go to the market-place. But all the other Bishops of the land came and bowed before me, they presented me with a staff encrusted with diamonds and said, 'You are the greatest among us!' I was vain and proud, I listened to their praises. I said to myself, 'This last time I will do it.'
"But when you came to me in the name of Rabbi Israel, I knew that my time had come. Still I was vain, and wanted to finish the service, to listen to the plaudits of the people. So I said to you, 'I will come at the end of the service.' But when the Baal Shem Tov sent you a second time to call me, I knew that I had to go at once. And I went.
"I will tell you what happened when I was alone in that room with the Rabbi Israel. He said to me, 'Sell all your goods, and divide the fortune into three parts. With one part buy your freedom. The second part give to the poor. With the third part retire to some far country, do good deeds, repent, and because of the holiness of your forefathers there is still hope that you will be pardoned your sins.'
"And Rabbi Israel said to me, 'When a man comes to you and tells you your own story, then you will know that your sins have been absolved.'
"When you came," said the Baron to Reb Yacob, "I recognized you at once as the messenger who spoke to me at the services in that city in Turkey. But when
you could not remember anything, I thought, 'It is a sign that I can never be pardoned.' And when you started to go away, I thought, 'I am lost.'
"But now I know that the Baal Shem Tov has interceded for me in Heaven, and I am saved!"
Then the Baron gave Reb Yacob half of his fortune. And Reb Yacob knew that his days of wandering were over. He never ceased praising the name of the Master whose wisdom was a light on earth during his life, and after his death.