In the beginning, G‑d created everything out of nothing. He could have decided to make everything out of something, but He knew that nothing is better material than something. Because something is already whatever something is, but nothing can become anything.
That’s why, at least as far as this universe is concerned, the only way to become a real somebody is by being a nobody first.
While you’re trying to figure that one out, let me tell you a Baal Shem Tov story. It’s about two tailors—let’s call them Berel and Shmerel—who traveled from village to village somewhere in Eastern Europe, offering their services to the villagers, saving a few kopeks here and there until they would have enough savings to return home to their families.
The only way to become a real somebody is by being a nobody first.
On their way home, Berel and Shmerel stayed at the inn of a Jew who managed the properties of a feudal landlord. The innkeeper seemed very distraught, and when the two tailors insisted he confide in them, he explained his predicament.
“The landlord received some fine cloth as a gift from a prince. He got it in his head that this cloth must be made into the finest royal garb. But no tailor I bring him is good enough. And now he’s telling me that if I do not find a first-class Parisian-style tailor who can do the job to his meshugeneh standards, he’s throwing me and my family into the dungeon!”
Berel and Shmerel were eager to help a fellow Jew. “We are fine tailors. We can do the job!” they insisted. Reluctantly, the innkeeper agreed. “What do I have to lose?” he said.
Miraculously, the landlord also agreed to hand over the precious material into their hands. Within two weeks, they stood before him, the finest robe imaginable in their hands. The landlord was happy. The innkeeper was happy. Berel and Shmerel were very happy—and made 30 rubles each, too.
Now, the landlord’s wife was also standing there observing all this. She figured out what was going on—that these two tailors weren’t just happy about making 60 rubles between them. What they were really happy about was that they had saved their fellow Jew and his family from the dungeon. So she turned to her husband and said, “Tell them about the family in the dungeon. Maybe they will pay the ransom.”
That’s the way they did things in those days: if you couldn’t pay your rent, you sat in the dungeon until it was paid. Ingenious, right?
So the landlord told them about this Jewish family sitting in the dungeon, waiting to be ransomed. “How much?” they asked.
If you couldn’t pay your rent, you sat in the dungeon until it was paid.
“Sure,” said Berel. “We can put that together to save a family from the dungeon, can’t we, Shmerel?”
But Shmerel didn’t look so sure. His share of 40 rubles meant over half his savings. He had been traveling almost a year without seeing his family. Sure, this family was suffering, but why should his family suffer on their account?
When Berel saw he was getting nowhere with Shmerel, he counted up his entire savings, asked Shmerel for just a few more rubles, and came up with exactly 40 rubles for the landlord. It all happened so fast, he didn’t have time to think what he was doing. Next thing he knew, the family was released from their hell in the dungeon, pale and sickly, kissing and hugging his feet for saving their lives.
Then Berel and Shmerel went home. Shmerel’s family was happy to see him. He used the money he earned to set up a tailor shop, with merchandise ready for sale, and became successful.
Berel’s family was not so happy. He didn’t want to tell them how he had lost all his money. It was a mitzvah, after all, and you don’t brag about mitzvahs. And besides, they wouldn’t understand. So they thought what they thought, and the family sank deeper into poverty.
Slowly, Berel became more and more depressed, until he could do nothing but stand on a corner, his open hand stretched out for alms. He stood there through the heat of summer, the autumn rain, and the freezing wind and snow of winter, a hollow and forlorn soul. Whoever dropped a coin in his hand received a blessing, but beyond that, he spoke not a word to anyone. He was nothing, he was nobody.
He was nothing, he was nobody.
Then, one day, a merchant walked briskly by Berel, late for an important deal. He dropped a coin in Berel’s hand as he marched by, barely hearing Berel’s blessing as he passed.
“May G‑d bless you in all you do,” said Berel.
And He did. The business worked out better than the merchant could have ever imagined. And maybe, he thought, it had something to do with this beggar’s blessing.
So next time the merchant had a deal to make, he made sure to pass by Berel the beggar and hand him a coin. And this time he waited to hear the blessing and answer “amen.” And once again, the blessing had a miraculous effect.
As you can imagine, this became the merchant’s regular practice. Rapidly, he became one of the wealthiest merchants in the district. Everyone wanted to do business with him, knowing that whatever he touched made profit.
The merchant bought a new mansion for his family, and held a grand party at which he got rather drunk. That’s when he spilled the beans.
“You think I’m rich because I’m smart? Or because I’m shrewd? Or because of my good deeds? It’s none of those! It’s all due to the blessings of a ragged beggar who stands almost motionless at the corner on the way to the market!” he announced.
The next morning, there was already a lineup of customers waiting for Berel. People gave, Berel blessed, miracles happened. Berel was oblivious to it all, so lost was he in his depression. Yet his fame spread quickly. Soon barren women were blessed with children, the sick were healed, and the biggest shlemazel in town actually got a job—all in consequence of Berel’s blessings.
Berel was oblivious to it all, yet his fame spread quickly.
That’s when the Baal Shem Tov came into the story. He also heard about this beggar-tzaddik whose blessings were as guaranteed to be effective as the spring rains bring seed to sprout. He traveled himself to see firsthand. And he took Berel aside and said, “Now tell me your story.”
The Baal Shem Tov was that way. He could talk to anybody, and that person would open up to him as though he was his closest friend. Berel told him the story of his life. But the story of the 40 rubles came hard. “You must tell,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “You must remember and tell.”
And when he did, the Baal Shem Tov hugged and kissed him. He told him, “From now on you will not have to beg. I want you to come home with me, with your family, and I will take care of everything you need.”
Then he took Berel and his family with him back to his town of Medzhibuzh, to his study hall, and made Berel one of his closest students. Berel studied Talmud and Kabbalah, and became a master of the secret lore. He became a tzaddik. He became a real somebody.
Many of us today are nobodies. That’s okay. The moon must disappear before it becomes full again. The seed must rot away before it becomes a great oak.
See Feivel’s Bad Day.