Monday, December 20, 2010

Ba'al Shem Tov and the Nursing Baby

This week we begin the book of Shemos (Exodus). We learn that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) was hidden among the reeds in the swamp by the Nile after a decree had been issued by Pharaoh, saying that all male children should be thrown into the river. Pharaoh's daughter, Basya, finds the boy, and attempts to nurse him. She does not succeed, and neither do any of the other Egyptian woman. G-d said, "should the mouth that is destined to talk with the Shechinah (Divine Presence) drink non-kosher milk? And furthermore, shall an Egyptian woman later boast that she fed the mouth that conversed with the Shechinah?" And so we have the following story.

A distraught woman once came to the Ba'al Shem Tov from a a faraway town, in order to receive a bracha. She had been childless all her years, and wanted nothing more than to raise a fine child together with her husband. The Ba'al Shem Tov preceded to bless her, and within the year she gave birth to an unusually beautiful baby boy. When the child was weaned she made the arduous journey once more, in order to show the Ba'al Shem her beautiful new baby, and to get a bracha for her son. When the Ba'al Shem Tov saw this stunning baby he asked his gabbai (attendant) to take the baby from the mother, and pass it on to him. The Ba'al Shem hugged, kissed and cooed at the baby, and returned him to the gabbai, who, in turn, returned him to his mother. He did not offer a bracha. The woman realized this omission, but did not question the ways of the Ba'al Shem, and so she made her way back to her distant town.

When she returned home the baby died. She rushed to the Ba'al Shem Tov. "You killed my baby!" she screamed. After all, he did not issue a bracha for the child. "Let me tell you a story," said the Ba'al Shem. "Please sit down.

"There was once a king and a queen. They lived contented, happy lives. They had the wealth of the kingdom at their hands, they loved each other very much, and they were loved by the people. The only thing missing from their lives was children. They had no son, specifically, no heir to the royal throne. The king, one day, consulted his foremost adviser, and said they following: 'You offer assistance in matters of state; you offer your wise counsel on the military front. Often, you even advise me in matters of a personal nature. It's no secret that the queen and I are childless. We have no male heir to the throne. What are we going to do?' The king's adviser thought for only a few seconds, and responded, 'the Jews. Only the Jews are able to help you here.' 'If the Jews are able to help me,' replied the king, 'then I shall take away all of their taxes and many tributes.' 'That's not enough,' said the adviser. 'You must make a threat. Tell them that they must pray for you to have a son, day and night, and if they fail in their prayers, then you will wipe them out from your kingdom altogether.'

"And so it was. The Jews were informed of their heavy burden, and they began to pray, day and night. They fasted, recited Tehillim (Psalms), and implored the Almighty to answer their prayers. Their prayers reached the heavens, and one lofty soul volunteered to come down to the earth to be the son of the king and queen.

"Nine months later a baby boy was born. The king, breeding his son for royalty, began to hire the foremost tutors in the kingdom for his beloved son, on subjects ranging from mathematics to etiquette. The boy was a wonder. He mastered every subject he took up in a short period of time, and with great ease. A few months after a new subject was introduced, the respective tutor was dismissed, because the boy had run the subject dry. He longed for something compelling, something profound, and he approached his father with the request, yet again. The king decided that it was time for the boy to take up spiritual matters. He spoke with the senior-most Christian cleric, and assigned him a room in the royal palace. The priest had but one request: 'Every day I meditate alone in a room for one hour. During this time I ascend to the heavens, and I cannot be disturbed. If someone were to see me in this state then I could make no guarantees for his life.' And so the request was granted.

"The boy took up the study of religion with great fervor and dilligence. He learned many hours of the day with the priest but, like any other young boy, he was curious. What exactly did the priest do during his hour of solitude? What exactly did it mean that he ascended to the heavens? And so he made a copy of the keys for the priest's study. He was bursting with anticipation on the next day when he stuck the key in the lock. He turned the handle, opened the door, and he could not believe the sight. The priest was sitting in tallis (a religious shawl) and tefillin, and was learning the Talmud! He looked up at the boy, and almost fainted. He began to stutter, and the only recognizable words coming from his mouth were 'please..please..' The boy looked up at him, and said, 'don't worry. I won't tell anyone. But under one condition: You teach me what you're learning.' He agreed. But the boy did wonder why all of this was a secret. 'Whatever the reason,' said the religious teacher, 'you could bet that it is a good one, and that I will have to keep up the charade for the rest of my life.'

"They studied Judaism, and the boy finally felt that this religious study, the length and breadth of which were infinite, contained the depth and profundity that he had longed for, for years. Eventually, he would tell his religious tutor, 'convert me to the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I want to be a Jew. But my father cannot stand to be apart from me for even a single day.' And so the religious tutor came up with a plan. 'You are to tell your father that since you are being groomed to take over the throne one day, and since you have never left the area surrounding the palace, it is your wish to travel for some time to get to know the governors of the various provinces and the local people, as well. But you will do this in increments. For one month you will leave for a few days a week, and then return to your father, in order to get him used to the idea of you not being at his side. And after a month you will say that you would like to travel a greater distance.'

"And so it was. The boy began to travel, and at the beginning of the second month, he reached a border town with the carriage driver, and told him to go back to the palace, because he would be spending a considerable amount of time in this town. And when all was clear he crossed the border, and looked for the nearest Jews. He spent his time in the beis midrash (house of study), and used the money he had taken along from the palace to support himself. He learned in the beis midrash until the day he died.

"When this soul reached heaven," said the Ba'al Shem Tov, "the prosecuting angels scoured his history in order to find some fault, but they could not come up with a thing. This was a soul who volunteered to leave the pleasures of the world above, and dwell in this world, in order to be born to a non-Jewish king and queen, and then abandon a life of royalty in order to become a Jew. One prosecuting angel, however, did speak up. 'For the first two years of his life he nursed from a non-Jew!' The verdict in heaven was that he be sent back down for two years in a new incarnation to be nursed by a Jewish woman. And this was the boy that you gave birth to," said the Ba'al Shem. "It should not grieve you that the child lived only two years, but rather you should contemplate the fact that for two years you were found worthy of caring for and nursing such a lofty soul."

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