3 Shvat 5781 / Saturday, January 16, 2021 | Torah Reading: Va'era
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Everything For The Sake Of Heaven    

Everything For The Sake Of Heaven

"I eat to keep up my strength," the lumberjack replied. "When I tell you my story, you will understand why I eat the way I do."


The memory of Shabbat still lingered in the air, and the Baal Shem Tov was reluctant to let it go. He allowed his thoughts to continue in their ascent up to higher and higher lofty spheres, but once there he bumped into a perplexing question.
"Who will be my learning partner in the World to Come?" he wondered. "Who will share with me in the partaking of all these spiritual delights?"
The question was no sooner asked than it was answered. But what an answer it was! It was not some outstanding scholar or other obviously worthy personage who was destined to sit by the tzaddik's side in Paradise. Instead, the honor had been given to a simple lumberjack who lived in a neighboring village.
The Baal Shem Tov, quite naturally, was dismayed.
"Perhaps the man has some hidden qualities," the Baal Shem Tov reasoned, and he decided that he would seek out the lumberjack the very next day.
When the Baal Shem Tov arrived at the lumberjack's simple hut, he did not reveal his true identity. He pretended to be an ordinary traveler passing by and asked if he could stay in the hut for a few days. The lumberjack agreed, but did not exert any special effort in making his guest feel comfortable. He just pointed out a corner where the Baal Shem Tov could sleep, and then he went about his own business.
Since the honor of being the Baal Shem Tov's partner in Paradise was not due to the mitzva of hospitality - a mitzva that even a simple Jew could perform in an outstanding manner - there had to be another reason why the lumberjack had been singled out. The Baal Shem Tov decided that the lumberjack must really be one of the 36 hidden tzaddikim - those people who secretly sustain the world through their good deeds - and so he made it his task to carefully study the movements of his host. However by the end of the day he was even more baffled than before.
Of course the lumberjack said his morning prayers, but the holy words were said at such a breakneck speed that it was hard to believe that the man had any notion of the deep mysteries that lay within them. And that was the way it was with every blessing and prayer that the lumberjack uttered. The man did everything that was required - and nothing more.
Now it was a well-known fact that hidden tzaddikim would often try to hide their greatness by appearing to be just simple Jews, yet the Baal Shem Tov was not someone who could be easily fooled. But try as he did to discover the lumberjack's secret, even after several days he still couldn't see anything special about this particular Jew - or at least not anything special in a good sense.
The truth was that there was only one thing that the lumberjack did with distinction: eat. The man had a voracious appetite and he made no attempt to curb it. For breakfast he ate a huge meal. At lunch his meal was even bigger. And when he came home at the end of the day, he once again consumed a tremendous quantity of food.
As the Baal Shem Tov sat and watched the lumberjack consume yet another helping of potatoes, his heart grew heavier and heavier. Was this man who did nothing but eat and drink and chop down trees really going to be his partner for eternity?
Seeing that there was nothing more to do at the lumberjack's village, the Baal Shem Tov decided to return home. However, at their last meal together, the Baal Shem Tov decided to question the lumberjack about his curious eating habits.
"I eat to keep up my strength," the lumberjack replied. "When I tell you my story, you will understand why I eat the way I do."
Since the Baal Shem Tov loved a good story as much as anyone, he settled back into his chair and took out his pipe. The lumberjack, for his part, took a few more bites of food to get up the strength he needed to tell his tale. When both men were ready, the lumberjack began to speak.
"Many years ago, when I was just a small child, the local squire got it into his head that he would force all the Jews on his land to leave their faith," the lumberjack began. "And when I say 'force,' I mean force. The squire ordered his henchman to use whatever means necessary to get the Jews to convert."
The Baal Shem Tov shuddered. He knew all about those henchman and their cruelty.
"My father was a very frail man," the lumberjack continued. "Because he never ate more than a few mouthfuls at any meal, he was nothing but skin and bones. When the henchmen arrived at our home …"
Tears began to well up in the lumberjack's eyes as he remembered that terrible day. It was only with great difficulty that he was able to pull himself together and continue with his story.
"My poor father was no match for them," the lumberjack said quietly. "Of course, he absolutely refused to give up his faith. However, he was beaten up so badly that he died soon afterward of his wounds.
"I saw it all, and I decided that day that the same fate would never happen to me. I would eat and eat and eat until I was big and strong - so strong that if any bully came along and tried to make me convert, I would give him a good thrashing for his efforts.
"So that's why I eat so much," the lumberjack said in conclusion. "Like I said before, I have to keep my strength up. Just in case."
With those concluding words, the lumberjack put another helping of stew on his plate. He once again began to shovel the food into his mouth, but now the lumberjack's eating habits no longer offended the Baal Shem Tov. The tzaddik even moved the serving dish closer to the lumberjack so that he could more easily reach it.
As the Baal Shem Tov continued to watch his future partner in Paradise eat, the tzaddik's heart became filled with joy.
"What a great honor it is to be given such a partner in the World to Come," the Baal Shem Tov mused. "All of his thoughts - and every morsel of food he eats - are truly for the sake of Heaven!"
Libi Astaire is the author of Choose Light! Chassidic Tales for Chanukah, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkos, Passover & ShavuosBreakfast with Rav Zusha and Other Stories to Wake Up Your Soul; and the award-winning Jewish Regency Mystery Series. Visit her website for more information about these and other books.


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