All his life, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov strove to reach the Holy Land. He would often say that if he and Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, who lived in Jerusalem, would join forces, they would bring the Moshiach. But this was not to be. Several times, the Baal Shem Tov set out for his destination, but all sorts of mishaps and catastrophes forced him to return home empty-handed.
One of these failed journeys left Rabbi Israel and his daughter, Adel,
stranded penniless in the city of Istanbul on the eve of Passover, without matzah, wine or any provisions for the festival. Mysteriously, the Baal Shem Tov's spiritual powers had also departed from him, and his great mind was blank -- he could barely remember the forms of the alef-bet.
Rabbi Israel had already gone to the synagogue and his daughter was
contemplating their empty seder table when a man knocked on their door. "I'm from Poland," he said, "traveling through this city on
business matters. I was told that two fellow Jews from my home country are
staying here. I would like very much to spend the festival with you."
"You're welcome to share our lodgings," said Adel, "but,
unfortunately, we can't provide you with much of a seder. We have nothing -- no matzahs, no wine, no bitter herbs, not even a candle with which to usher in the festival..."
"No matter," said the guest, "I have everything with me. I
knew that I would be spending Passover on the road, so I brought along all the festival provisions. There is enough for all of us."
When Rabbi Israel returned from the synagogue, he found a fully-furnished seder laid out before him: lit candles, matzah, wine and everything needed to fulfill the mitzvot of the day. His joy knew no bounds, for at that moment the divine spirit had also returned to inhabit his soul.
After they had recited the Haggadah, eaten the matzah and the maror, and were enjoying the festival meal, the Baal Shem Tov turned to the guest and said: "You have restored my life to me. How can I repay you? Ask for anything that you require, and I promise you that your need will be filled."
"G‑d has blessed me with wealth," said the man, "and I want
for nothing material. But my wife and I have been married for many years, and have failed to conceive a child. Rabbi, I see that you are a righteous and holy man. Surely your prayers can open the gates of heaven. Please, bless us with a child."
"I swear," said Rabbi Israel, "that before the year is out,
you will be holding your child in your arms."
No sooner had these words left his mouth than there was a great commotion in the heavens, for this man and his wife had been born without the capacity to bear children. Yet even the heavens must abide by the law that "[G‑d] does the will of those who fear Him" (Psalms 145:19). The oath of the Baal Shemn Tov would have to be fulfilled.
A proclamation was issued which resounded throughout the supernal worlds: "This man and his wife will indeed bear a child. But because Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov has forced the hand of heaven to overturn the laws of nature, he has forfeited his portion in the World to Come."
Upon hearing this proclamation, the Baal Shem Tov's face lit up with joy. "How fortunate I am!" he cried. "I just learned that I have
forfeited all heavenly reward for my good deeds. All my life I have been
troubled by the thought that perhaps my service of the Almighty is tainted by the expectation of reward. Now, however, my service of G‑d will be pure, free of the possibility of any ulterior motive!"