A haughty and wealthy young merchant once came to visit the great chassidic master, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov.

People seeking an audience with the Baal Shem Tov usually came asking for guidance in their service of the Creator, or for advice and blessing in their material affairs. But this visitor lost no time in explaining that he had no special needs or particular problems which required any intervention or blessing. In fact, a rather lucrative business deal had brought him to a nearby town, and since it was so close, and having heard so many fanciful stories about the chassidic master, his curiosity led him to see for himself what all the talk was about.

“Well,” said Baal Shem Tov, “if there’s nothing you feel that I can help you with, perhaps you’d like to stay for a while and listen to a story?” The man agreed and so the Baal Shem Tov began:

“Once upon a time there were two childhood friends who were inseparable as they grew up together. However, when they become adults, their ways parted. One became wealthy and the other was very poor. In order to save his family from hunger, the poor man sought out his childhood friend and asked the rich man for help. The wealthy man did not hesitate. ‘Didn’t we always promise each other that we’d remain friends forever and share in everything that we have?’ he reminded his friend, and offered him half of his fortune.

“As often happens with the passing of time, the wheels of fortune reversed, and the one who had before been wealthy was now very poor, while the friend to whom he had earlier given half his fortune had become quite rich. Confident that he would now receive reciprocal help from his now wealthy friend, the poor man sought him out and explained his situation. But instead of helping him, the man with the newly acquired wealth refused to part with any of his fortune.

“Time again witnessed a reversal of fortune, so that the poor man became rich and the rich man again became poor, as each returned to their original situations. Now it happened again that the one who had before refused to part with any part of his fortune began to feel the hopeless despair of impoverishment, and went to his friend begging for forgiveness. The man who was now wealthy readily forgave his former childhood friend, but this time he insisted that the friend give him a written agreement that if he were ever in need again, the friend would share his blessings with him.

“Well, in the passing of time the two men again experienced reversals of fortune. But, true to form, the man who had signed the note refused to honor it, and his friend and his friend’s family found themselves homeless and penniless.

“Years passed. The two men died. When they came before the heavenly court to account for their lives, the meanspiritedness of the selfish man’s life weighed heavily against him and he was condemned to punishment, while the forever kind and forgiving friend was sent to his eternal reward in paradise. However, the good friend could not accept the destiny of his fellow’s soul and petitioned the Heavenly court that, in spite of selfish and shameful manner in which his friend had repeatedly treated him, he nonetheless still loved him and did not wish to see him suffer on his account.

“The heavenly tribunal was in an uproar,” the Baal Shem Tov continued his tale. “This was certainly a very unusual case! It was decided that the only way to solve this case was to return both men to earth, so that the sinful man would have one last opportunity to atone for his egotistical behavior. And so, the sinful man was returned as a prideful wealthy merchant while the other was returned as a common street beggar.

“And so it came to pass that, one day, the righteous beggar knocked on the door of the rich man begging for food. He had not eaten for a long time and was literally on the verge of starvation. But he was rudely and callously turned away. And so, the beggar died . . .”

At this point in the story, the rich man, with tears streaming down his face and a lump in his throat, could barely speak. “Yes . . . yesterday . . . yesterday I turned a beggar away from my door . . . Later I heard that a beggar was found dead in the street. Was . . . was he the beggar in your story?”

No answer was necessary. By now the tears were flowing freely. The man was overcome with remorse and repentance. He was desperately anxious to know how or what he could do to make amends for his shame.

The Baal Shem Tov explained that his former friend, the beggar, had a widow and orphaned children, and that he was to go and give three-quarters of his fortune to that family in order to atone for his sin.