Hundreds of years ago, somewhere in Eastern Europe, there lived a very poor man and his wife. Their names were Josef and Rebecca, and their home was little more than a shack. Their only possession was a single, scrawny cow, from whose milk and cheese they fed themselves and earned a meager living.One afternoon, not long before sundown, Josef heard a knock at the door and when he opened it, his jaw dropped in astonishment. Standing before him was the man known far and wide as the greatest Kabbalist in the world, the man known as the Baal Shem Tov — “the master of the holy name.” He was accompanied by a few of his students, who stood respectfully behind him.
“We’ve been traveling all day, and now it is almost sundown,” said the Baal Shem Tov. “May we join you for the evening meal?”
“Of course, of course,” said Josef, standing aside as the master and his students entered the shack. At that moment, Rebecca, who was standing at the stove, looked over her shoulder. She too was astonished, and even a bit frightened by the sudden appearance of the great master.
“Very well then,” said the Baal Shem Tov, glancing around. “but I have to tell you that my students and I are very hungry after our travels. We’d like some fine cuts of meat, some fresh vegetables, and of course some good wine. You can accommodate us, can’t you?”
Josef hesitated, but then nodded enthusiastically. “Oh yes, oh yes,” he said. “This is a great honor for us, and we want to give you exactly what you desire. Let me just speak with my wife for a moment”.
He and Rebecca retired to a corner of the room. “What are we going to do?” Rebecca asked anxiously. “How are we going to give these men what they want? We have no meat or fresh vegetables, and the wine we drink isn’t at all worthy of the Baal Shem Tov!”
Josef thought for a moment. Then he said, “There’s only one thing to do. I’ll have to sell the cow in order to buy food. There’s no time to waste!” And before his wife could protest, he hurried out the door.
Within the hour, Josef returned with supplies for exactly the sort of meal the Baal Shem Tov had described, and Rebecca hurried to prepare it. But as the great Kabbalist began to eat, Josef and Rebecca were amazed at how he ate and ate, and drank and drank. As soon as he finished one plate, he immediately called for more. He was like an eating machine!.. Even the students were amazed. It was as if the Baal Shem Tov intended to eat the poor man out of house and home — and that was exactly what was happening!
After downing the last morsel, the Baal Shem Tov pushed his chair back from the table and got to his feet. “That was delicious? Thank you very much,” he said. “Now we have renewed energy for the road, so we will be on our way” And in a flash, he and his students were gone just as suddenly as they had arrived.
“Well, this is a fine mess,” said Rebecca, when the door had closed behind the departing visitors. “Now we really have nothing, not even hat scrawny cow! What are we going to do, Josef? We’re going to starve!”
Unable to bear the sight of his weeping wife, and having no idea what to do, Josef opened the door and stepped out into the cold night air. Soon he found himself walking through the forest, with no real idea of where he was going. How was he going to solve the terrible dilemma he and Rebecca were now facing? Then, without thinking he closed his eyes, fell to his knees and began to pray. From the bottom of his heart he prayed for all the things he had never had — not just for himself, but for his long-suffering wife as well.
Just then, Josef heard a rustling in the branches behind him, and as he opened his eyes he saw someone stagger into the clearing. It was an old man, well dressed but disheveled, who had obviously been drinking. But as he caught sight of Josef, his eyes shone with happiness.
I’m so glad there’s someone here,” said the old man, slurring his words. … I don’t want to die alone.”
“Die?” said Josef, getting to his feet. “You’re not going to die. You’ve just had a bit too much to drink.”
But as Josef reached out to steady the newcomer the old many sighed and sank to the ground. As Josef knelt beside him, the man told a painfully sad story. He was very wealthy, but his money was the only thing his family cared about. In fact, they were like vultures, just waiting for him to die so they cold get their hands on his fortune.
“But they’re in for a surprise, said the old many, with a rueful smile. …They don’t know that I’ve buried the treasure right here in this forest. They’ll get nothing because they deserve nothing!”
“I’m sorry this has happened to you,” Josef replied. “It’s cold out here, and you need a warm place to rest.”
The old man just shook his head. “It’s too late for that,” he said. ” But you’ve been so kind to me. That’s something that hasn’t happened in many years, so I will repay your kindness. Here’Look'”
But as he reached into the pocket of his coat, he began coughing. Then, just as suddenly, he fell silent and his eyes closed. Josef quickly bent to help him, but sure enough, the man was dead. Now Josef felt more frightened and confused than ever. Yet as he stared at the body beside him, he saw that in the instant before he died the old many had withdrawn a slip of paper from his pocket. Josef gently took hold of the paper and unfolded it. To his amazement, it was a map — and when he followed it, he discovered a buried treasure beyond anything he could have imagined.
Five years passed. One day the Baal Shem Tov and his students were again on the road when a fine carriage passed headed in the other direction. As the students looked into the carriage they were amazed to see the poor man who had struggled to provide them with dinner years before. Sitting beside him was his wife, and they both looked not only as if they were wealthy, but as if they didn’t have a care in the world!
When the students turned to their master for some explanation, the Baal Shem Tov only smiled calmly, as if this is what he had expected all along. “You see,” he said to the students, “it was Josef’s destiny to be joyful and fulfilled, but he never thought to ask for everything that was really meant for him. He would have been content to spend the rest of his life with his one scrawny cow. That’s why I had to help him get rid of it.”