Some three hundred years ago, the name of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov spread throughout Europe as one who was willing to do anything, even perform miracles like Elijah and Moses, in order to help another, especially a fellow Jew.

One evening a middle-aged couple came with a desperate request; they wanted a child. Despite their prayers, good deeds and various remedies and treatments, they had failed to conceive a child in all the years of their marriage.

The Baal Shem Tov closed his eyes, put his face into his hands, lowered his head to the desk before him and his consciousness soared to the spiritual realms.

Minutes later he sat upright, looked at them sadly and said: "There is nothing I can do. Continue praying, continue your good deeds. May G‑d have mercy. But it is beyond my ability to help you."

The woman burst into bitter tears; her husband turned his face aside and wept silently, his body shaking.

"No, no!" she cried. "I won't believe it. I will not accept no for an answer. I know that when a tzaddik (righteous person) decrees, G‑d must fulfill. I want a child!" Her cry pierced the walls and broke the holy master's heart.

He lowered his head again for many long minutes then looked up and said: "Next year you will have a child."

The couple was speechless. The man began trembling, took the Baal Shem Tov's hand kissed it as his wife showered thanks and blessings. They backed out the door, bowing, weeping and praising G‑d and His servant the holy Rabbi Israel.

Sure enough, two months later the woman conceived, and nine months thereafter gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

The couple's joy increased day by day as the child grew. Their baby was beautiful! His eyes sparkled with life and his every smile filled their lives with warmth and happiness. At the age of one year, it was obvious he was something special; he was already walking and talking. As he approached the age of two they began looking for a tutor to begin teaching him Torah. They planned to take him to the Baal Shem Tov; they would show him what his blessing had brought.

But on the morning of his second birthday the child didn't wake up.

The neighbors came running when they heard the screams, but nothing could be done. As miraculously as the boy had come, so mysteriously and tragically had he departed this world.

The funeral was enough to make the heavens cry. After the week of mourning they returned to the Baal Shem Tov to inform him of the tragedy. But the Baal Shem Tov understood better then they could possibly have imagined.

"Your child," he said to the grieving parents, "contained a lofty soul which had made a huge sacrifice to save thousands of people. But this soul needed you to achieve its tikkun ('rectification') and become spiritually complete. That day, when you came to me, I looked into the heavens and saw that it was impossible for you to have children; but when I heard your cries and saw the depth of your pain, I realized that this special soul was destined to be yours for the short span of its return to physical life. Sit down, dear friends, I have a story to tell you."

Several hundred years ago lived a king who was childless. He was rich and powerful, but he desperately desired a son to carry on the lineage. He ordered that all his subjects hold daily prayers in their houses of worship that G‑d should grant their sovereign an heir.

One of his advisors suggested that the reason the king was childless was because his Jewish subjects did not pray for him sincerely enough. The only way to make them do that, said this advisor, was to oppress them.

The next day the king issued a public proclamation stating that if the queen was not blessed with a child within in the next three months, all the Jews would be expelled from his kingdom. With all the neighboring countries closed to Jewish settlement, the poor Jews had nowhere to go. Their cries and prayers rose from every synagogue in the land.

A call resounded through the heavens for a soul willing to descend into the spiritually desolate environment of the royal palace in order the save the Jews of that land. Finally, one very holy soul agreed to make the sacrifice.

Shortly thereafter, the queen became pregnant and soon gave birth to a son. The king was overjoyed and showered the Jews of his realm with presents and favors.

At the age of two, the child could already read and write, and when he was five years old he had surpassed all his teachers and learned all they had to teach. A master teacher — a priest whose fame as a genius and scholar had spread far and wide — was brought from afar to teach the prodigy.

This new tutor was of a different caliber altogether. It seemed that he had mastered every form of wisdom in the world and his very presence radiated a thirst for knowledge. The young genius could not get enough of his new teacher. He became attached to him more than even to his own father the king. He spent every moment of the day and most of the night with him absorbing more and more wisdom and learning; and the more he absorbed the more he desired.

But the priest demanded his times of privacy. He had an agreement with the king that for two hours of every day he would lock himself in his room and no one, not even the King himself, was allowed to enter or disturb him in any way. It was on this condition that he accepted the task of teaching the prince.

But the prince was curious. He could not tolerate the idea that his beloved master was withholding something from him. He had to know everything!

One day, the young prince managed to hide himself in his teacher's room before the priest's daily two hours of seclusion. The priest entered the room, locked the door securely behind him, and searched the room thoroughly. Somehow he failed to discover the prince's hiding place and he proceeded in his strange daily ritual.

First he removed all the crosses from the walls and from around his neck, and put them in a box outside his window. Then he took out a large white woolen shawl with strings at the corners, wrapped it completely around his head and body, and began weeping like a baby.

Then he took out two small black boxes with long black straps attached to them, tied one to his left upper arm and the other above the middle of his forehead. After that he began to pray, swaying, singing and crying for over an hour. Finally, he took out a large Hebrew text and began reading from it in a sing-song voice, swaying back and forth all the time.

Suddenly, he stopped and listened intently. The faint but unmistakable sound of another person in the room had caught his ear. The priest was terrified. He jumped from his chair, hurriedly removed the black boxes and shawl, stuffed them in a drawer, and began to search the room. It did not take long for him to discover his young pupil, who had been observing everything with rapt fascination.

The priest begged the boy not to reveal what he saw. If the king found out he would certainly be beheaded. But the prince's curiosity had been aroused. He swore that he would never tell anyone what he saw in the room, but only if the priest would explain what he had just done and teach him what it was all about.

So the priest had no choice but to reveal that he was a Jew, doing was what Jews have been doing for thousands of years: praying and studying the Torah and fulfilling its commandments. He had been compelled to hide his faith during one of the many decrees of forced conversions that Jews were subjected to in those times; now he was forced to assume the guise of an alien religion on the pain of death.

"You must teach me your ancient wisdom!" the prince insisted. "I knew that you were hiding something from me. In everything that you taught me, I always sensed that there was something more there, something deeper and truer, that you were withholding from me!" In vain did the "priest" plead that he would be subjecting them both to mortal danger. "If you refuse to teach me," the prince threatened, "I'll tell everyone what I saw in this room."

For several years they learned Torah together, until the boy announced that he wanted to convert to Judaism. His desire became so strong that teacher and pupil made up a story about going to Rome to further their studies and instead escaped to another country where the boy converted and never returned to the palace again.

"The prince became a great and famous sage," the Baal Shem Tov concluded his story, "living a life of saintliness and good deeds. When he passed on from this world and his soul ascended to the heavens, it was the most luminous soul that had returned from earth in many generations. Only one blemish dimmed its shinning perfection: the lingering effect of the fact that it had been conceived, borne, and fed for two years in the spiritually negative environment of the royal palace. All it lacked to attain the true heights of its glorious potential was for it to return to earth and be conceived, given birth to and weaned in the holy atmosphere of a righteous home.

"When I saw the depth of your holy desire for a child, I know that you were worthy parents for this righteous soul."