Many long years ago on a particularly dark night deep in the forests of Chachkes, the Baal Shem Tov and his followers gathered around a campfire. They had assembled for the purpose of celebrating God’s glory. There was dancing, singing and praising of the Lord, and the night air was filled with the ecstasy and fervor of their devotions. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, the desperate cries of one of their own, Feivl Farblonjet, were heard. At first the Chasidim believed it to be the screeches of an owl, but when the crying came closer they became alarmed. “Help me, I am being taken,” the desperate voice wailed. “ I am being tormented by demons that will not release me.” The forest was filled with Feivl’s pleas, and the Chasidim turned to one another in fear and astonishment. “Are we losing yet another to the forces of evil that are sent to test us? Does our misery continue, despite our prayers?” they asked one another, as the entreaties became more insistent. Despite their prayers, their singing and dancing, it appeared that the Almighty had, for the time being, turned a deaf ear.
Then from the depths of the forest the form of a frantic Feivl emerged from the darkness, his shtreimel askew upon his head, his garbadine kapote torn. As the trembling image beseeched them, a ghostly miasma embraced his shuddering form, sucking him down into the blazing campfire, his ritual fringes fluttering in the night air. Doleful cries could be heard as he disappeared into the fire, while from the dark forest wild and sinister cries echoed in the night. The trees, themselves, discharged bats that shrieked against the sky. Menacing ravens swooped down in the darkness, and a galaxy of sparks from the campfire cast ominous shadows that appeared like dancing demons. The Chasidim, holding on to their skullcaps with one hand, and nervously toying with their payes with the other, shivered in fear at the thought that at any moment vultures might swoop down to pluck out their eyes. The ground beneath their feet felt like quicksand as they huddled together and shuddered. In terror they silently recited the Shema, but evil spirits were in control, and they felt powerless.
Only Feivl Farblonjet’s tefillin remained next to the fire at the spot where the evil forces had taken him. The ground was wet from the dew of his tears, and the Chasidim prayed for his soul. “He will be saved,” the Baal Shem Tov reassured his followers. “We will pray for his soul and we will not forget him. All is not lost as long as we have faith in the Almighty.” The Master then picked up Feivl’s tefillin, pressing them to his heart. Prayers to God were offered, and the little groups continued their incantations throughout the night. Led by their Tzaddik, the Chasidim swayed and chanted and maintained their faith. With prayers on his lips the Baal Shem Tov, increasingly a prisoner of melancholy, eventually drifted off into a deep slumber. Life had not been kind to his flock, and who could justify the tribulations that the Almighty had sent and might bestow in the future? What had Feivl done to warrant his fate, and moreover, was human suffering to be the inevitable lot of the Jews? These were the thoughts that haunted the troubled dreams of the Baal Shem Tov.
As he descended deeper into sleep to a place of his imaginings the Master passed through many narrow corridors and passageways. Angels with silken wings accompanied his journey into the land of forgetfulness, and like feathers that scatter in the breeze, his mind took flight. Twisting and turning, rising and falling, his pliant body, devoid of will, was tossed about like dust in the wind. He dipped and soared through clouds of dreams, and his mystical journey revealed to him what someday might be his world, Olom ha Ba, the afterlife. Down through the ages he sank, farther and farther away from the known.
Cobweb shrouded ghosts wrapped themselves around the roped caftan of the Tzaddik as fragmented thoughts, like shattered shards, pierced his imagination. In this phantom place, today became yesterday, and yesterday leaped into the future. His grip on consciousness loosened, abandoning him to the fate of nightmare. As the Baal Shem Tov passed through time, he was sucked into the vortex of his troubled dreams, and the Besht, as he was called, relinquished all claim to reality as he spun into the incandescence of a corridor of flame and fire. His beard, singed by the conflagration, emitted the scent of a sinister incense as the Tzaddik sank farther from the heavens above. Like a cyclone, the maelstrom of his nocturnal descent hurled him around and about in a dizzying frenzy, and eventually into the arms of a succubus, whose eager heart awaited his arrival on the other side.
The Baal Shem Tov, a devout believer whose faith in God and His commandments was absolute, recognized the face of temptation when he saw it. Alas, the wicked forces that had overwhelmed Feivl Farblonjet had followed the Besht in his own dreams. The yetzer hora, the evil impulse, existed everywhere, even in the land of forgetfulness, and he, whose heart was pure, was on guard. “Welcome,” whispered the comely woman, whose languid voice resonated with the sounds of a clear mountain stream; flimsy garments casually lay upon her sinewy limbs, light was reflected in her silken tresses. Her beckoning movements alerted the Besht that he was in dangerous territory. Here he was faced with a daughter of Lilith, a temptress demon against whom he had been warned since his cheder days. This was not a woman who would prepare kasha and varnishkes for him, who would be there to bathe his feet when he returned from hours of davening. No, this was not that kind of woman. “Who are you?” inquired the Master. I am the Witch of Endor, and I have been expecting you.” The Baal Shem Tov was confused as to why this demon woman would be expecting him, and even more shocked when she revealed her identity. He knew of her powers, this prophetess who had predicted the death of King Saul . The reputation of the Witch of Endor was legendary, and it occurred to him that here was someone who might shed light on the fate of Feivl, the lost Chasid.
When the woman was at last convinced that the Baal Shem Tov, a pious man, meant business and not monkey business, they settled down to a serious conversation, and it was the fate of Feivl Farblonjet that they discussed. “Why was he taken from us,” the Besht asked of the prophetess, “this good and righteous man, dedicated to Torah and mitzovt? “Perhaps too dedicated to some things,” muttered the woman as she smiled coquettishly at the holy man. “How can one be too dedicated?” inquired the Besht. “Because one can,” replied the prophetess. She paused, taking the hand of the Besht in hers and stroking his palm. “You have heard of the sin of excess, of course.” she continued, “and the more intensely a person lives in ideals the more that person tends to become removed from the real world.” She paused to move closer to the Master, rearranging the tresses of her long hair. “You are a wise man who understands the need for balance and reconciliation,” she whispered, continuing to stroke his hand . She moved even closer as she continued, which caused the Besht considerable discomfort.
“God created woman as helpmate, not hand maiden,” she counseled, “and you of all people should know that.” She paused, as the Besht removed her hand from his, wiping sweat from the edge of his collar. “Perhaps he was taken in order to teach him a lesson, a lesson he did not learn from you,” she proposed, leaning over to stroke his ear. “Is it right that this Faivl Farblonjet should daven all day, every day, while his unfortunate wife and five children must spend their own days haggling with fishmongers to save a few groschen? Perhaps he had become so separated from this world that he never recognized what his life had become in relation to others. “ The Besht reddened, suggesting that the woman had struck a nerve. “If he is able to recognize his failings,” she concluded, “ he might be redeemed; salvation and forgiveness are always an option for our Faivl Farblonjet.
It was not often that the temptress received visitors of the Master’s stature in her forsaken corner of history. She was, perforce, honored and excited by his presence. This place of cobweb and memory, was for the most part ignored and rarely visited. Certainly, educated and interesting guests such as the Besht presented a rare opportunity to converse with men to whom she was intellectually and, incidentally, physically attracted. Most visitors, and they were few, did not remember a past of cobweb and vague remembrance. In her day the Woman of Endor had been celebrated and well regarded as a respected source of prophesy. Despite his ban on conjuring and witchcraft in the realm, King Saul himself, had consulted her on more than one occasion, seeking advice and counsel. In this capacity she had attained a status equal to men, a phenomenon unheard of at the time.
The Master’s consistent rejection of the prophetess’s amorous advancements did little to cool her ardor. She was, nonetheless, persistent in her efforts to seduce him; years of isolation and loneliness in the backwater of time had resulted in an overwhelming passion for companionship. The Tzaddik, however, the happy and contented husband of a woman who prepared him borscht and potato kugel, was a satisfied man. Fortunately for him, however, and with impeccable timing, (the prophetess had begun to remove some of her flimsy clothing,) they were unceremoniously interrupted by a sudden burst of smoke and flame. From out of nowhere a spontaneous conflagration appeared, and out of the fire stepped none other than Feivl Farblonjet, himself. Upon seeing the Master he blinked and wiped his eyes in disbelief before throwing himself at the feet of the Tzaddik , kissing the tips of his ritual fringes.
“Master,” he cried, can it be you?” and he cried tears of joy. As the woman looked on, the two Chasidim embraced, crying Baruch HaShem, praise the Lord, and for the moment the prophetess was temporarily forgotten.
When the dust finally settled, however, the woman read the riot act to both Feivl and the Besht. In her condemnation she held to account the Master for not adequately preaching the importance of moderation and balance, and Feivl for not possessing the common sense to understand such basic considerations.
The two Chasidim stood shamefaced before the woman, reluctantly admitting that she was correct in her assessment of their actions, and they vowed to do better in the future. They offered to make her an honorary Chasid, but she politely refused. In her own way she would play a role in the Divine plan, but no man would decide her destiny. She answered only to a higher power.
The excitement of the reunion with Feivl, Farblonjet exhausted the Baal Shem Tov, and his eyes had become heavy. His final recollections before his eyes closed altogether were of the Woman of Endor feeding grapes to Feivl and rubbing his back with liniment and fragrant oils. The Tzaddik then fell into a deep sleep.
As the Besht descended deep down into his dreams, he could smell the fresh challah that his wife baked every Shabbos. He could taste the cholent and the chicken soup with egg noodles. He dreamed of her gefilte fish and tzimmes, and he began to salivate. Oh, how he missed her, and how happy he would be to return home to the mishpocheh. It seemed as if he had been away for a very long time. Spinning and tumbling among the clouds of his dreams, he experienced the sensation of being drawn upward, as if being resurrected and pulled toward a celestial realm. He continued to transcend the ages, passing Saul, David and Solomon along the way. He thought he might have recognized Judah Maccabee and Rabbi Akiba, as well as Elijah and Jeremiah. It was only a glimpse here and there, but it was enough to convince him that he was passing swiftly through time. He was on his way to somewhere, perhaps back to the quotidian life of the ordinary world from which he had been temporarily absent and to which he was anxious to return.
The Baal Shem Tov having undergone a spiritual awakening would be returning a different person. He had learned from the Witch of Endor. Yes, he would bestow his benedictions, and he would continue to sing the praises of the Lord, but he would also teach each each one of his Chasidim the importance, above all, of being a mensch .
When he returned to the depths of the forests in Chachkes he awoke to behold his followers as he had left them, deep in prayer. The campfire was still burning and morning light was beginning to make itself known. Nothing had changed, but himself. He had not been missed and not a one of them understood that he had been gone from them. The night was swiftly fading and all heads were bowed in devotion and supplication. Suddenly, the dying campfire burst into an unnatural flame. Heat from the burning embers scorched the ground, and the earth began to roar and tremble. The Chasidim were jolted from their reverie when before their very eyes, the figure of Feivl Farblonjet emerged in a pillar of smoke from the flames. They could not believe their senses. Was this truly the Feivl Farblonjet who had been lost to them? Had the demons been vanquished, and the power of faith and prayer triumphed? The Chasid had been returned to the fold as suddenly as he disappeared, and a chorus of Chasidim shed tears of joy and thanksgiving. To them, however, he had returned as a different man. There seemed to be a change in his bearing and about his features. He appeared to have undergone a spiritual metamorphosis of some kind. They could not put a finger on it, but something was different. No matter. It was clear that belief in the Almighty had not been in vain, and they cried tears of gratitude as together with the Baal Shem Tov they recited the Shema.