In a town of Poland there lived a wealthy hotelkeeper who always made a special effort to seek out and invite disciples of the Baal Shem Tov to his inn. He would even let them stay for free, as long as they agreed to relate some wondrous story about the Baal Shem Tov who had passed away a number of years earlier.
One day the innkeeper heard that Reb Yaacov Yosef, the personal shammas of the Baal Shem Tov was in town, accompanied by many chassidim. He accommodated them in his hotel and gave them a wonderful meal. At the conclusion, he asked them to relate a story of the Baal Shem Tov. Sipping a glass of wine, Reb Yaacov began his story:
“I will never forget that Saturday night, 15 years ago. It was bitter cold and a snow was falling. The Baal Shem Tov was discussing the weekly sedra, Vayishlach (Bereishis 32:25), ‘And Yaakov was left alone and a man appeared and began to wrestle with him.’ Rashi quotes the Gemara (Chullin 91) that Yaakov forgot small jars and the man who appeared was the guardian angel of Esav.
“‘Now two questions arise,’ began the Baal Shem Tov. ‘Why did Yaakov worry about such a small item, such as little jars, when he had sent a very generous gift to his brother Esav, which proved that he was not stingy? The other question is why did the guardian angel of Esav choose that moment to do battle with him?’
“‘But the true meaning is hidden in these few words describing Yaakov’s experience. Yaakov returned for his little jar that contained spiritual oil and Satan is always there to stop him.’
“Suddenly the Baal Shem Tov looked out of the window and exclaimed, ‘We too have a spiritual soul to save! Hurry get the coach and horses ready – we have a journey to make.’
“Everyone piled into the coach which traveled for many hours. It was almost early morning when they arrived in a small town. The disciples were nearly all asleep when the horses stopped in front of an inn and the Baal Shem Tov called out, ‘Yaakov! Knock on the door of this inn and notify the occupants that we want to come in to warm up and to have breakfast.’
“I obeyed my master’s order and knocked but there was no answer.
“‘Knock harder and if there is no answer, break down the door,’ the Baal Shem Tov commanded.
“I knocked so hard that finally one of the windows opened and a frightened woman looked out and seeing the group of chassidim, shouted, ‘Go away! I have no room for anyone. Please be gone before I am caught.’ But the Baal Shem Tov ignored her pleas and told her that unless he would open the door, he would break it down.
“The woman opened the door and began to cry. ‘You are Jews, why don’t you have pity on me? You know that because today is a Gentile holiday all the Jews are forbidden to be on the streets and I was warned to close my inn and not to accept any customers.’ She began to cry bitter tears. ‘Be gone immediately before the church opens. I understand a new priest arrived today and he is a rabid Jew hater. Please have pity on me and my children.’
“While they were talking the church bells began to ring, calling all the worshippers to the services. The Baal Shem Tov turned to his shammas and said, ‘Yaakov, go to the church and see the new priest who will be standing at the pulpit and tell him, ‘Israel, the Baal Shem Tov, has arrived in this town and is now stopping at this inn and he demands to see you immediately.’
“I followed my master’s orders and entered the church, and walking down the aisle came to the priest standing at the pulpit, dressed in his priestly vestments. I whispered the Baal Shem Tov’s message in his ear and I suddenly saw him become frightened. The priest then replied, ‘Tell you master that I can’t come now, I am too busy.’
“When I returned to the inn and repeated the priest’s answer, the Baal Shem Tov became angry and exclaimed, ‘I didn’t tell you to whisper my message! I want you to return to him and announce my request in a loud voice so everyone can hear it too.’
“I returned to the church and in a loud voice repeated the Baal Shem Tov’s message. The priest turned white and calling over one of his assistants to take his place he descended the pulpit and accompanied the servant to the Baal Shem Tov. The priest remained closeted with the Baal Shem Tov for many hours and when he came out the Baal Shem Tov called together his chassidim and they started for home.
“And to this very day,” concluded the narrator of the story, Reb Yaakov, “I have never found out who the priest was and what business he had to do with the Baal Shem Tov. Another curious fact is that the priest seems to have disappeared from sight after that incident.”
The audience was so engrossed in the story, everyone listening with mouths agape, that they didn’t notice the innkeeper approach Reb Yaakov and with a cry, embrace and hug him. While everyone looked at him in amazement he cried, “Now I can reveal the truth. It is I who was the priest, whom you described so eloquently!”
While everyone looked on dumbfounded, the hotelkeeper told his story. “Many years ago, in 1647, we lived in Nimrav. My parents were killed on Kiddush Hashem by the local Christian zealots and I was turned over to the priests to be trained to be a good Catholic. Many years passed and I was inculcated to hate all Jews who were supposed to have killed my savior. After a while I developed a fiery hatred of Jews. Some time later I was ordained to be a priest.
“It was at that time that I began having dreams of my parents coming to me every night, pleading with me to return to my people. Every night they bothered me and I was beginning to fail in health. One night they told me that if a messenger would to me summoning me to a man called the Baal Shem Tov, I should follow him, otherwise my life would be in grave danger. I awoke frightened and worried and when the messenger did come to me, in the middle of my performing the church services, I had no choice but to follow him. I tried to hold back the first time but eventually I did go to the Baal Shem Tov. I spent many hours with him. He reminded me of how my parents sacrificed their lives for their religion and he told me the stories of all the great martyrs in Israel.
“I can still see the fire in the eyes of the Baal Shem Tov as he related the story of Rabi Akiva, and the thousands of other martyrs who sacrificed their lives for the true G-d of Israel,” continued the hotelkeeper. “When he completed his stories I had, then and there, resolved to return to the religion of my father. I agreed to repent and to leave the town and settle in a distant town and do charity, pray and study the Torah.
“The Baal Shem Tov then gave me a sign to know when G-d will have accepted my repentance. ‘If years later,’ he said, ‘you will hear the story of your life told by one of my chassidim, you will then know that you are forgiven and G-d has accepted your repentance.’
“For many years I have looked everywhere for a chassid who would tell my story. I became wealthy and I gave a lot of charity, always inviting people to my hotel, with the hope that someone would tell my story. Today, thank G-d, you have narrated the story and now I know that G-d has accepted me.”
When Rav Yaakov Yosef heard this he said, “Now I know the meaning of the words, ‘Saving the little jar of spiritual oil,’ that the Baal Shem Tov so ably explained.