(Editor’s note: In only one instance did Ted get one by this editor. This column originally ran in April of 2018 under a slightly different title.)
By TED ROBERTS, the SCRIBBLER ON THE ROOF
The followers of the Baal Shem Tov love to tell of his courage in facing up to his opponents. The holy man, they used to say, could walk among wolves without drawing a deep breath. But the most epic confrontation of his life is rarely told. And never when children are near. And never after nightfall.
It happened on a February night in Meziboz. Our teacher had just finished reading the story of Daniel. He put down his book softly, with reverence, the way a man puts down his wine cup after enjoying a rare, delicious wine. The story continued to roll through the mind of the holy man as he smiled in recollection of the prophet’s courage.
His thoughts were interrupted by a rustling of the curtain which framed his open window. The wind? No, there was definitely something concealed by the folds of the drape. Like a human, but shorter with a grotesque back. Still half hidden by the drape, it spoke:
“Israel Baal Shem Tov, my master, the adversary, has sent me to make a bargain with you.”
Israel knew with whom he was dealing, but he gazed without fear at the deformity hidden behind the drape and went right to the point. “A bargain? Your master has no power and no home in the human heart.”
The drape rustled wildly. “You’re a fool,” croaked the devil’s minion. “Who do you think enticed Joseph’s brothers to sell him into bondage and made David lust for Bathsheva and tells the gentle milkmaid who brings you the cool milk to skim off just enough cream so you won’t notice?”
“So, tell me the bargain,” said the Baal Shem Tov.
“It is a simple one; your heart’s desire in exchange for your allegiance to my master. He recognized your wisdom even if HE, whose name I am not allowed to speak, and some of the district rabbis don’t. Why slave in the forest or run a tavern? Your hands should hold rings of gold and bracelets of emeralds, not wood saws; and your mind should dwell on the world’s mysteries, not barroom accounts.”
The Baal Shem Tov thought of Elijah facing the priests of Baal, the prophet Nathan striding into a vengeful king’s throne room, shouting accusations; Daniel among the snarling lions; and he was not afraid.
“Riches will be yours,” cooed the seducer in the drapes. “And all the pleasures of love, which remember come from our creator. I’ve seen your wife,” added the evil spirit, “a fine helpmate for carrying those clods of clay from the forest, but no Bathsheva. Why eat boiled cabbage when a roasted chicken is in the oven? Knowledge, you shall have also. You shall unlock the secrets of the Kabalah like a child unwraps a honey cake. Your brilliance shall eclipse both the Tsar and the chief Rabbi of Moscow. They shall both kneel down to you; together if you wish.”
“And remember one thing, holy man, before you answer. Lust and purity, evil and good, the Tsar and the Baal Shem Tov, my master and the ministering angels all come from the same creator. Pebbles on a beach from the same steep cliff”
Seductive words. The teacher, himself, has often expressed similar thoughts. The creator made both crab apples and golden sugar apples. Only a fool would eat sour fruit. And the Torah reminds us not to be foolish. He had often lectured his followers on the virtue of joyfulness as they danced and drank bottle after bottle of sweet wine, as yellow as the candlelight.
Maybe, thought the Baal Shem Tov, with all this promised wealth and power he could make justice – tame the wild heart of his fellow man.
He looked away from the shape beside the window and stared out at the hillside made silver by the moon and melodious by the wind that played it like a lyre. He was silent for many minutes and then he spoke calmly to the minion from the world’s underside.
“What must I do for you and your master?”
The drape rustled with a sudden excitement.
“One deed,” said Satan’s servant. “A single imperfect act that will allow my master to boast for generations to come that the Baal Shem Tov of Meziboz served two masters – The Prince of Darkness as well as the G-d of light.”
“Your neighbor, the old man who spends most of his day in bed complaining about his ills and eating porridge, which leaks all over the bed clothes – he will die in two days, says my master who owns him. He is of no value. Press a pillow over his face. Tonight.”
“No,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “I have observed that in the morning when his daughter goes to the river to wash clothes and gather firewood, he watches her child and amuses her with stories.”
“All right – all right. Then go slay the goat in the backyard who kills the trees by eating their bark; and frightens the children? Take a rock and break its head. She is of no use.”
“And who will supply the children’s milk?” responded the holy man.
The drape was rustling with anger. The bounty of the devil could not be purchased by swatting a mosquito. Some substantial evil must be committed.
“Here’s my final offer,” stated the messenger. “That scruffy cat with the maimed ear who’s been curling around your leg our entire conversation – squeeze his neck until the light in his yellow eyes dies. He’s only a carrier of fleas and vermin; and besides, I don’t like the way he’s been glaring at me.”
The Baal Shem Tov answered softly. “But he kills the mice who hide in the dark corners of the house. He has a place in the universe. AND YOU DON’T!” he shouted as he rushed to the drape and grabbed the shape enclosed in its folds. With a pitiful whimper, it shrunk under his hands into a small, struggling thing like a toad. It fell to the floor.
The cat was on it in a single bound. And devoured the residue of evil even before our teacher could examine it.
“Only evil is not crowned with a purpose,” said the Baal Shem Tov as he stroked his cat with the mangled ear.