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The Wanderer's Funeral
by Doug Lipman
The old rabbi woke up with a pain in his side. He said his morning blessings, got dressed, and called for his gabbai (assistant). "Please send two strong men over the mountain path. Have them take a small cart. Tell me what they find."
Hours later, the gabbai reported, "Rabbi, they say he was just lying there. Curled around the trunk of a tree. They looked in his pack; all he had been carrying was a seedling! Now, somehow, I have to find nine others for his funeral procession. That's always hard with a vagrant that no one knew."
The rabbi said, "I will lead the procession myself."
The next morning, hundreds of villagers followed the old rabbi and his procession to the graveyard. A quiet buzz accompanied the marchers, "Who is this wanderer, that the rabbi is honoring him so?"
Once the grave was filled again and the last blessing was said, the gabbai turned to the rabbi. "Holy rabbi, we all want to know: who WAS this man?"
The rabbi said, "I am old. Let me sit under that tree, as I tell you the story."
Thirty-six years ago, one morning I woke up with a terrible pain in my side. I felt as if someone had thrust an ax into my gut. My first thought was, "The holy forest!"
Hobbling with pain, I began to climb the narrow path over the mountain. Several times I had to stop and rest. Yet the pain spurred me on. At last, I came to the crest where I could see the valley on the other side - the forest where the holy Baal Shem Tov himself had walked and prayed...where he had talked to the spirits of ancient tzaddikim - righteous ones of past generations, who came to teach him.
The sight took my breath away. Some one had cleared a large gash of land. Where before there had been trees blessed by the Baal Shem Tov himself - not to mention birds, flowers, and creeping vines that had lived among the trees - now there was only mud.
Just then, I heard a thud from the valley. At the same instant, I felt agony in my gut. I fell to the ground with the pain. As I fell, I yelled with all my strength, "Stop! You must stop chopping!"
By the time I could walk again down into the valley, I saw a man approaching me from below, carrying an ax. "Rabbi, what's the matter?" It was Reb Aharon, the lumber merchant - some of you remember him?
I said, "You must not harm a single tree in that forest!"
"But Rabbi," he said. "I bought the rights from the Count. He owns this land!"
"Reb Aharon, do you know how holy this place is? This mountain path is the very one the Baal Shem Tov himself used to walk on. He would become lost in his holy meditations. Sometimes, he would not even see the cliff he was about to step over. But the mountains would see HIM. Just as he took a step, another mountain would move closer to bear him up. He walked from mountain to mountain, but never knew it."
"Rabbi, that's a pretty story. But these trees are old and ready to be harvested." The lumber merchant turned back toward the trees.
"Wait. I hate to disclose such secrets to you, Reb Aharon. But you leave me no choice. Do you know what trees these are? They were not just blessed by the Baal Shem Tov. In fact, his blessing connected them with the tzaddikim of old!
"The Baal Shem Tov understood the need we would have for great souls in our world. But the great souls live in Paradise, in the Palace of Souls. They study, they talk, they pray together. Few of them wish to enter our world, to be born here again. They know they would daily mourn the loss of each other's companionship and of their closeness to G-d.
"So the Baal Shem Tov blessed these trees in a way that allowed the spirits of the heavenly tzaddikim to enter the trees. As a result, once one of the great souls left Paradise and was born here, he could come to this very forest and feel the closeness of the other great souls still in heaven. Your chopping today has already caused much pain, much damage."
"Rabbi, that is too much for me to believe. I can see the trees. I can hold a log in my hand - and the money that I will get for it. But you ask me to believe that trees can feel pain - and can hold the souls of long-dead men?"
"I do not wish to reveal so much to you. You are neither a pious nor a deep-feeling man. But you must understand the pain you are causing." I looked at the lumber merchant for a long moment. "If you felt the pain yourself, would you believe it? Would you believe what I told you?"
Reb Aharon put down his ax. "Yes, Rabbi, if I felt it myself."
"Come here." I took Reb Aharon's hands and placed them on my stomach. "Prepare yourself. I will let some of the pain out."
"Ahhhhh!" Reb Aharon screamed in pain. He held up his hands. "What have you done to me? Look at my hands!"
The lumber merchant's hands were charred and split. "I am sorry," I said. "I did not know you would feel so much of it. That is the pain that we tzaddikim feel when anything distances us from G-d."
Now Reb Aharon was crying. "I had no idea, Rabbi! What have I done to the world?"
"You have made it less holy. Already, I feel less strength. Others throughout the world will also feel the separation you have created here."
"Rabbi, what can I do?" Reb Aharon looked at his hands and wept. "What can I do?"
I took him in my arms and let him cry. At last, I said, "You want to know how to restore some of the holy connections in this world?"
"If that is possible, Rabbi."
"You know a lot about trees, don't you?" He looked at me a long time before he seemed to understand.
The old rabbi stirred himself from where he sat near the graveyard. "That was the last time I saw the man we buried today."
"But Rabbi, what did he do after he left you?"
"He planted trees. Everywhere."
"Did it heal the wound he had created?"
The rabbi paused. "In a way. The forest of the Baal Shem Tov will never be the same. But the lumber merchant planted trees throughout the world. And he planted them with such holy intention, that the souls of the righteous have been able to reside in them once more."
"Rabbi," said the gabbai, "is that really a great enough achievement? Did he really deserve the enormous honor you gave him by leading his funeral procession? After all, you are a great and famous rabbi!"
The rabbi bowed his head. "I only ask this: am I great enough to deserve the honor of leading it?"
With that, the old rabbi went to the cart that had carried Reb Aharon's corpse. He pulled out the dead man's sack and withdrew from it the single seedling. Alone, he walked to the head of the lumber merchant's grave. On his knees, he dug his hands into the soft earth. Just beyond the grave, he planted Reb Aharon's last sapling.
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This page was last updated on Monday, March 10, 2003
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