Weekly Chasidic Story #849 (s5774-27 / 1 Adar Sheini 5774)

To Save a Drowning Man

The Baal Shem Tov explained great length the meaning of the verse in Psalms 107, “Those who go down to the sea in ships and do work in raging waters.”

Connection: Weekly Reading–the sacrifices (yes, I know, the Thanksgiving sacrifice is in Tzav, not Vayikra; but next week has to be a Purim story).

The town of Harki belonged to a branch of the Polish aristocratic Radziville family. The owner spent most of his time in France and was rarely seen on his vast estates.

One of the young noblemen of the family, Benedict by name, had a very close friend in France named Pierre Louis, a young man from an assimilated Jewish family. Indeed, he was so alienated from his Jewish roots that he had no remaining Jewish ties at all.

When Benedict married, he settled on the estates of his wife’s family in Russia. His good friend, Pierre Louis, also married into a wealthy family, and settled nearby. The two lived a life of luxury and pleasure and were constantly in each other’s company.

After many years had passed, Pierre Louis was widowed. Left with no anchor in life, he immersed himself totally in a life of debauchery in the company of the Russian and Polish aristocrats who were his companions.

Once, when the chasid Rabbi Nissan went to visit the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov explained to him at great length the meaning of the verse in Psalms 107, “Those who go down to the sea in ships and do work in raging waters”: * The phrase “those who go down to the sea” refers to the souls that come down and enter the bodies, comparable to the seas which cover everything, as the body covers the Divine soul within it.

“But there are two kinds of descent: in one, souls descend into the sea of life – i.e. when one finds oneself within a circle of Torah. In the other, the souls descend into the midst of a raging sea without any ship in which to take refuge. Those Jews who descend into the physical body, but live in an atmosphere devoid of the light of Torah, flounder as if in a raging sea.

“Therefore,” concluded the Baal Shem Tov, “it is the duty of other Jewish souls who `do their work in raging waters,’ to save them, as they would a drowning man.”
The Baal Shem Tov made it clear to Rabbi Nissan that he was referring precisely to the friend of Benedict, Pierre Louis, who was, in actuality, a Jew named Pesach Tzvi.

“This winter, Benedict will go hunting with his friend Pierre Louis and they will both visit Harki. At that time, I want you to read this letter that I am giving you, and then carry out all the instructions in it.”

Rabbi Nissan was to inform Pierre Louis that he was a Jew, named Pesach Tzvi, and that he must return to his people. Even if Pierre Louis didn’t want to listen, Reb Nissan must repeat to him exactly what the Baal Shem Tov had said. The Baal Shem Tov assured him that he would be successful.

When Rabbi Nissan returned to Harki the town was buzzing with anticipation of the aristocracy’s hunting season who habitually visited the area.

Benedict and Pierre Louis were staying, as they always did, at the home of the local priest. But this time, as Benedict entered the house, he tripped over the threshold and fell. The pistol he was carrying in his pocket discharged, and a bullet lodged in his stomach.

Pandemonium reigned as a doctor tried in vain to staunch the flow of blood. Riders were dispatched to neighboring towns to bring other doctors, but the patient’s condition deteriorated steadily.

As news of the accident spread throughout the town, the Jews were distressed to hear that Benedict, who had always been friendly toward them, was in grave danger. Rabbi Nissan opened the letter of the Baal Shem Tov, and to his astonishment, it contained a prescription for treating Benedict’s wound. In addition, the letter said that if anyone inquired how Rabbi Nissan came to know this cure, he should say that he learned it from Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov.

On the second day after the accident Rabbi Nissan arrived at the house, saying he had a cure for Benedict. The desperate doctor allowed the Jew to be admitted. The rabbi spread an ointment on the wound and also put some medicine down the wounded man’s throat. To the amazement and relief of all, the cure took effect within an hour.

Only then did Rabbi Nissan approach Pierre Louis and ask to speak to him in private. He related all the words of the Baal Shem Tov, telling him that he was a Jew, and must return to his people, but Pierre Louis was too shocked to respond.

It was months later, in the spring, that Pierre Louis arrived in Harki and came to Rabbi Nissan. He said he could not rest since the day they had spoken, and now he finally resolved to return to his people. Over the next year he studied and made great progress.

Benedict was quite sympathetic to his friend’s return to Judaism, and as a gift he gave him an estate outside Harki. As an additional display of good will, Benedict presented to the local Jews the land on which their houses were built. In this manner the existence of the Baal Shem Tov and his circle of mystics became known in Harki.
Adapted with permission from the rendition in // (#1073).

Weekly Reading–the sacrifices (yes, I know, the Thanksgiving sacrifice is in Tzav, not Vayikra; but next week has to be a Purim story).

Editor’s note: Four are required to bring a thanksgiving offering to the holy Temple (today, to recite the Gomel blessing): (see also Psalm 107)
One who safely crosses the sea
One who recovers from possibly life-threatening illness
One who is released from prison
One who safely crosses the desert

Biographical note:
Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer [of blessed memory: 18 Elul 5458- 6 Sivan 5520 (Sept. 1698 – June 1760 C.E.)], the Baal Shem Tov [“master of the good Name], a unique and seminal figure in Jewish history, revealed his identity as an exceptionally holy person, on his 36th birthday, 18 Elul 5494 (1734 C.E.). He wrote no books, although many claim to contain his teachings. One available in English is the excellent annotated translation of Tzava’at Harivash, published by Kehos.


Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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