In a small Ukrainian town lived a Jewish merchant whose name was Akiva. He was a pious and charitable man, highly respected in his community. As the years rolled by and Reb Akiva began to age, he decided to spend his remaining years in the Holy Land and to be buried in its sacred soil. The Jews of the small town received the news with mixed feelings. They were sad to part with Akiva, knowing that the town would not be the same after he had gone. At the same time, they were happy for him, (and a little envious,) for he was fortunate to fulfill the fondest dream of every Jew.

Reb Akiva was gone, but not forgotten. The townspeople often wondered how he was, and whether he had reached the Holy Land safely, for in those days it was a difficult and dangerous journey.

Imagine their surprise when Reb Akiva suddenly returned to his native town! Hardly a year had gone by since he had left for the Holy Land, and here he was back again!

People flocked about him to take a look at that wonderful man who had been to the Holy Land, and to hear a report of the cherished Land of their ancestors. Reb Akiva readily answered the torrent of questions. Yes, he had been to Jerusalem, visited the Western Wall, the Tomb of Mother Rachel, Hebron and the Cave of Machpelah, Tiberias, Safed, Meron and the other holy places. "I could feel in my breath the holiness of those places, and I felt like hugging every pebble on the ground," Reb Akiva told them.

"But why did you come back?" they asked.

At this, there appeared a little sadness in his eyes, but the question remained unanswered.

Soon after his return, Reb Akiva became ill. He grew weaker from day to day, and he felt that his days on earth were numbered. It would not be long before he would have to return his soul to his Maker. He sent for the gabbaim (wardens) of the chevra kaddisha (holy burial society). They came and sat down at his bedside, waiting for the dying man's instructions as to his funeral arrangements, and whatever else he wished to tell them before departing. They sat and sat, in solemn silence. Reb Akiva said not a word. Finally they rose and wished him a refuah sheleimah (complete recovery). Reb Akiva thanked them for coming, and asked them to return the following day.

The next day the gabbaim came again, and waited patiently for a long while. Again Reb Akiva said nothing to them, except to ask them to return the following day. Grudgingly, the impatient gabbaim returned the following day. This time, Reb Akiva began at once:

"You are wondering why I have asked you to come, again and again. You are also wondering what the reason could be for my returning from the Holy Land. I am ready to tell you.

"You see, it was my custom to go every year to the fair in Berditchev to buy and sell different wares. Every time I was there, I used to spend at least Shabbos with the saintly Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, of blessed memory, may his merit shield us. Early one Sunday morning I came into the Rebbe's house as he was saying the morning blessings and preliminary prayers. I sat down quietly and listened to the holy words coming from his lips with great devotion. Presently a man rushed into the house. Greatly distraught, and with tears in his eyes, he told the Berditchever Rebbe that a large sum of money had been stolen from him. Moreover, it was not his money, for he was a trustee, and various merchants engaged him to act as their buyer. Now, no one would ever trust him again, and he would no longer be able to make a living. And how could he ever repay the money that had been entrusted to him?

"The Berditchever Rebbe calmed him a little, and asked him, 'Is there anyone you suspect in the theft?'

"'Yes, I suspect the innkeeper's maid,' the man answered.

"The maid was summoned. Her eyes were red from weeping. She burst out crying again, swearing by everything that was holy that she had not touched the man's money. She complained that the innkeeper had beaten her and threatened to send her away, but she was quite innocent. Her father, a poor water-carrier, who had come with her, also swore that his daughter was an honest girl, and suggested that the whole thing might be nothing but a frame-up by the trustee who desired to embezzle the money. The innkeeper, on the other hand, kept accusing the maid. In the meantime, the commotion had attracted curious spectators, and the turmoil grew.

"The Rebbe silenced them all. He said, 'I have no doubt that a theft has been committed, but I am also certain that the girl is innocent. If anyone present would be prepared to place this sum of money on the table, I would give him my word that he would have a share in the World to Come!'

"Hearing this, I stepped forward and said, 'Rebbe, will you give it to me in writing?'

"'Yes,' the Rebbe said, and I took out a bundle of money, counted out the amount, and placed it on the table.

"The saintly Rebbe handed the money to the man who had been robbed. He said a few kind words to the girl, blessing her that the Almighty should reward her for the shame and pain she had suffered unjustly, and everybody left with a feeling of satisfaction.

"The saintly Rebbe finished his prayers. Then he requested his shamash bring a quill and ink and paper, and he wrote, 'Open the Gates of Gan Eden to the bearer of this note,' and signed his name.

"As he gave me this note, the saintly Rebbe told me not to speak about it to anyone, until the very last day of my life; then I was to instruct the chevra kadisha that on my death they were to place this note in my hand and bury me with it.

"The following day, when I came to the Rebbe's house, he opened a drawer and brought out the amount of money that I had donated the previous day. He told me, 'Last night the man who stole the money came to me and confessed his wrongdoing. He had never stolen before, but he could not resist the temptation. However he was moved by the generosity of the man who took money out of his own pocket, at the risk of being suspected of the theft, in order to help a fellow Jew in distress. And so,' the Rebbe continued, 'if you want your money back, you may have it in exchange for the note I gave you.'

"I refused to take the money, and suggested that it be given to the poor girl who had been unjustly accused of the theft. This made the saintly Rebbe very happy.

"Needless to say, I cherished that note like the apple of my eye. For safety I placed it in the binding of my old Siddur and sealed it carefully.

"Before I left for the Holy Land, I turned over most of my holy books to the Beit Hamidrash. Among them I inadvertently included also my old Siddur. This is why I returned from the Holy Land. . . ."

After pausing for a moment to draw a deep breath, Reb Akiva concluded:

"Yesterday, and the day before, when you visited me, I felt that I had still some life left in me. But today I feel is my last day on earth. I ask you therefore to be sure to bury me with the note of the saintly Berditchever Rebbe."

Then Reb Akiva recited his last prayers, closed his eyes, and died peacefully and happily, confident that he would have a place in the World to Come.