Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov was one of the greatest disciples of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism. Many years after the Baal Shem Tov’s passing, Rabbi Yechiel Michel’s young son Yosef became critically ill, and his condition steadily deteriorated until he was on the verge of death. Just then, news reached Rabbi Michel that opponents of the Baal Shem Tov were planning to burn the chassidic book Toldot Yaakov Yosef (“The Generations of Yaakov Yosef”) in a certain city. This book, written by another great disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, was the first book, and at that time the only one, that contained the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov.

Rabbi Yechiel Michel realized that this was an attempt to suppress the new chassidic movement, and that the situation was urgent. He decided to travel to that city and try to prevent this terrible desecration. He instructed his family that if (G‑d forbid) his son died when he was gone, they should delay the burial until he returned home. Shortly after he left, Yosef entered a deep coma. He seemed to have stopped breathing, and they thought he was dead, but they delayed his burial as they were told. After three days, however, Yosef began to perspire. He opened his eyes and told this story:

“When I went into the coma, I felt my soul leave my body. Immediately, an angel came to take me to a certain heavenly palace. Since the angel was not permitted to enter that palace, I entered alone and stood by the door. Inside, the heavenly court was in session, and I saw two angels arrive with a book that contained a record of all my sins. It was so large and heavy that it was difficult for them to carry. As I looked on, another angel came with a thin book of my good deeds, but they were not equal to the sins, which outweighed them. Then a third book was brought in, of my sufferings, and they caused many of my sins to be erased. Nevertheless, because of the sins that remained, the court decided to condemn me to die from my illness, and they were about to pronounce the sentence and write the decree.

“At that moment, my father—who had made a soul-ascent to protest before the heavenly court—came to that palace, entering with a commotion and loudly complaining about those who wanted to burn the book with the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. He vigorously protested, saying, ‘It will be a terrible chillul ha-Shem (desecration of the divine name) if it’s burned. It can’t be allowed!’”

Just then, Rabbi Yechiel Michel noticed his son standing near the door, and said, “Yosef, why are you here?” “Father, I don’t know,” he said. “But please speak to the court on my behalf.” “I certainly will,” his father answered. Then Rabbi Yechiel Michel continued to protest about the book burning as before, and pleaded passionately that it not be permitted. But the court answered, “This matter belongs to a higher jurisdiction”—because in heaven there are higher and higher courts, one above the other—an appellate court, a supreme court, and so on. Rabbi Yechiel Michel then left to make an appeal to a higher court, and completely forgot about his son Yosef.

Yosef stood near the door, worried and troubled. Not long after this, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye also made a soul-ascent and came to that heavenly palace where the court was sitting. He entered, and also shouted and pleaded while weeping, complaining about those who wanted to burn his book. Then he noticed his friend’s son standing by the door, and said, “Yosef, why are you here?” “Rabbi, I don’t know,” said the boy. “But please speak to the court on my behalf.” “I’ll certainly say something on your behalf,” said Rabbi Yaakov Yosef. The court then told him too that the issue of the book was a matter for a higher court. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef immediately left to appeal to the higher court, and totally forgot about Yosef. Yosef, meanwhile, continued to stand there worried and troubled, because he had no one to help him or to be his advocate.

Suddenly, there was such a great commotion that all the worlds trembled, and a proclamation echoed throughout the heavens: “Make way, make way; the holy Baal Shem Tov is entering the palace!” (The Baal Shem Tov, as we said, had already passed away and was in the other world.) As soon as the Baal Shem Tov came in, he saw his disciple’s son standing alone by the door, and said, “Yosef, why are you here?” “Holy Rabbi, I don’t know,” said Yosef. “Could you please speak to the court on my behalf?” “I certainly will,” said the Baal Shem Tov, and he immediately went and spoke to the court about the boy, asking them to dismiss his case and let him go in peace. He then returned to Yosef and said, “You can leave now and go home.”

By this time, Yosef was curious about what would happen in heaven, and wanted to stay a little longer to see what the Baal Shem Tov would do there. But two burly angels immediately came, took him under the arms and escorted him out. They then took him down, down, down, to the lower world, “until,” he said, “I saw a repulsive corpse lying on the floor,” for his family, thinking he was dead, had taken him off the bed and put him on the floor with his feet pointed toward the door, according to custom. And the angels said, “Enter that corpse!”—they wanted him to return to his body. But he was disgusted by the body and the suffering in this world, and absolutely refused. He cried and pleaded with them, but they forced him to enter against his will. “Then,” he said, “I began to perspire, opened my eyes, and am telling you this story.”

Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov, the boy’s father, forgot about his own son in his zeal to defend the book that contained the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, the author of the book, forgot about his friend’s son in defending his book that contained the Baal Shem Tov’s teachings. But the holy Baal Shem Tov, whose teachings were in the book, did not forget a Jewish child. A child was more important to him than a book.

Some of the holiest people do not write books. The Baal Shem Tov focused on living the teachings, not recording them. The Baal Shem Tov’s legacy was not of books, but of people. What he left behind were disciples and followers in whose hearts burned love of G‑d, love of Israel and love of the Torah, with an eternal fire. He never wrote a book, but he never forgot a child.