A small house made of old wood stood on the side of a mountain, among the mountains between Kitov and Kosov, as though hiding in its shade. As far as the eye could see were the Carpathian Mountains in their full glory. G-d’s creation is magnificent indeed.
A young couple lived in this house, a couple which chose to flee the tumult of the city and the hordes of humanity. They had married just a few months earlier and had built their lives in peace and quiet.
The man’s name was Yisroel. In his childhood he had been called Yisroelik and later, when he became the great leader of the Jewish people, he was known as Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov. Despite his youth there was always a seriousness about him, and he looked like someone older who was steeped in wisdom and possessed of great intellect. His eyes always radiated joy and his face was serene. By his side was his young wife Chana.
The two of them lived in this shack, alone in the mountains. It wasn’t easy for Chana, who was dislocated from her birth city of Brody where she had lived with her family. Her older brother was Rabbi Avrohom Gershon of Kitov. He was one of the members of the kloiz (informal group of great Torah scholars immersed in full-time Torah study) in Brody, and was considered a mekubal and great in Torah. However, this was the condition that her future husband made when their shidduch was suggested, that after the wedding they would leave the bustling city and live in isolation where the young groom could continue to chart his spiritual course in climbing the heights of holiness and purity, a course exclusive to him and based on the guidance of his illustrious teacher.
The young lady soon figured out her groom’s secret. She realized he wasn’t just a teacher’s assistant for young children but a bachur with a lofty soul. She agreed to his stipulation despite the sacrifice it required of her.
Chana was happy, even though she did not see her husband much at home. Throughout the week he would wander through thick forests of which there were plenty in the Carpathians. He would leave home on Sunday morning and return on Friday afternoon, before Shabbos. And yet, Chana was happy. She knew that her husband was an outstanding tzaddik, a scholar, and a holy man. Not many knew this. Actually, only she knew. He hid his ways from others, even from her brother who was angry at his sister’s decision to marry this apparent simpleton.
R’ Gershon had not thought his sister would do such a shidduch. He hoped with all his heart that he could marry her off to an outstanding Torah scholar, someone G-d fearing, and not some nobody who appeared one day at his home and showed him an engagement document that R’ Gershon’s late father had signed.
After the couple met briefly, they agreed to marry. Having no choice, R’ Gershon had to go along with the plan. But in order not to suffer shame from this ignominious match, he sent the young couple far away. He was happy they so readily agreed to comply and did not realize that this was exactly what his new brother-in-law wanted.
And thus, far from the public eye, Yisroel would wander through the mountains, during the long summer days in the heat and during the snowy winters, going from path to path, skipping from one rock to another, crossing brooks and praying and singing to Hashem, as he reached ever greater spiritual heights. He held a ridged thick staff in his hand and carried a small pack on his shoulder. The pack contained his tallis and t’fillin, a seifer or two, and some bread.
To support their household, Chana did various jobs while her husband continued his growth in isolation and his holiness reached great heights. There was nobody happier than her.
The snows began to melt, and the first signs of spring began to show here and there. The holiday of Pesach was beginning to approach, but Yisroelik did not yet have matzos or meat for the upcoming holiday of freedom. Making do on little or continuing his many customary fasts were not options, since eating matza is a biblical commandment.
So Yisroelik hitched his horse to a wagon and set out for one of the nearby villages. There, he slaughtered an animal in proper fashion and with the little bit of money that he had, he bought some wheat and ground it well and set off for home with a medium size sack of flour and a supply of meat for Pesach.
When he arrived home, he said to his wife, “It would be a good idea to bring the meat and flour into the house and to unhitch the horse.” He then hurried off to the hut where he would often sit in solitude, so as to return immediately to his spiritual pursuits. Only he truly appreciated the inestimable value of every moment.
A few minutes passed, and before his pious wife had managed to bring the sack of flour into the house, a sudden storm bore down and it began to pour heavily, the torrents of water flowing down the mountain sides and washing away the last remaining vestiges of snow that still remained.
There was no end to the anguish of his wife over the sack of flour that had been rendered chametz due to the exposure to water. She realized that there was nothing that could be done except to use the flour for regular bread baking. Hurriedly, she informed her husband of what had occurred so that he be aware of the situation and once again go off in search of flour for shmura matza.
Yisroelik was not upset in the least, and accepting the decree of Heaven, he set out once again to one of the villages, in order to acquire wheat to be ground into flour for matzos. When he completed the task, he loaded the sack of flour onto the wagon, and set out once again for home as the horse struggled to climb the long hill upon which his hut was situated.
It was a long and steep road, and the haggard horse toiled mightily to drag the heavy wagon with the sack of flour. Although having traversed this road many times in the past, it seemed as if this time the horse’s strength was not up to the job. The young Yisroelik tried to help the horse and push the wagon from behind, but the pitiful animal could not withstand the effort and in middle of the climb it collapsed and after a few moments breathed its last.
Yisroelik was well aware that this area was almost completely devoid of human traffic and there was no point in waiting for help. Having no choice, he was compelled to drag the wagon himself, since he was afraid to leave the flour without proper protection in case of another surprise rainstorm which would turn this flour too into chametz.
For many hours, he dragged the wagon up the steep mountain until he had no strength to continue. Standing next to the wagon, he began to cry bitterly. He understood that this was a heavenly test placed in his path of fulfilling the mitzva, but he no longer had any strength.
As he stood crying, he could see through his tears the image of a tall and impressive figure approaching. The man appeared to be an honorable and dignified Jew making his way easily through the winding mountain paths. Yisroelik understood that this was no ordinary Jew that just happened to be passing. It must be Eliyahu HaNavi himself who had come special for him. Eliyahu HaNavi looked at him and with a warm smile informed him, “You should know that your tears are pleasing and your prayers have been accepted. I will immediately send a gentile to take the wagon and the flour to your house.”
Meanwhile, Yisroelik started awake and realized that this had been a dream and that he had dozed while crying. He had merited seeing the fulfillment of “fortunate is one who sees his face (Eliyahu HaNavi) in a dream.” Knowing that this was not a simple dream and that his salvation was near, Yisroelik waited patiently. Presently, he spied coming up the path a powerful gentile with a horse and wagon. The gentile appeared to be a sturdy fellow with broad shoulders, and large solid legs in heavy shepherd’s boots.
The name of the strange young man who wandered among the mountains was already known among the local gentiles, so Yisroelik was not surprised when the man addressed him like an old friend, “Srulche, tie your wagon to my wagon and I’ll take you home.” The powerful man loaded the horse carcass onto the wagon, the two wagons were hitched to each other, and the young Yisroelik began to walk alongside his unlikely companion as they made their way up the mountain.
A short while later, the two reached the hut of the young couple. When they reached the house of the Baal Shem Tov, the gentile turned to him and said, “What will you give me if I skin the horse for you?” This was considered a valuable commodity in those parts, and the Baal Shem Tov gave him a gold coin worth thirteen rubles as he skinned the animal expertly and speedily.
Not long after, another local gentile came to the Baal Shem Tov and he bought the horse hide from him for four gold coins, and said to him, “Try to use the money to buy nice clothes for your Jewish holiday, for you and your wife.” The Baal Shem Tov realized that these gentiles were messengers sent to him from Above, to help him with his needs for the Yom Tov.
(Based on Shivchei HaBaal Shem Tov)