What is the next world worth?
By Avi Lazerson
The style of the early Chassidic masters was to explain deep concepts in seemingly simple stories. One of the more famous stories of the Baal Shem Tov and the great Chassidic masters is a tale of a poor Jew who was near the end of his wits. He had many creditors and no money. He came to the Baal Shem Tov (other versions of the story tell of different Chassidic masters) and asked him what he should do with the little money that he had.
The Baal Shem Tov listened to his plight. Here was a simple Jew who possessed faith in the miracle Rabbi. The Baal Shem Tov told him that he should travel to a certain town in which merchants were having a fair and to invest his money in the very first deal that was offered to him. The Baal Shem Tov guaranteed that this would help him.
So the poor Jew took what little money that he had and started out towards this town. As he came into the town, he found an inn where he could partake of some refreshment. It so happened that many of the Jewish merchants had taken rooms at that very inn and were sitting in the dinning area when the poor Jew came in.
It was obvious to the merchants that this was a simple Jew, so they engaged him in a conversation with the sole purpose of having some fun at his expense. When he was asked the purpose of his visit he replied that he was looking for an investment for his money. He explained to them that he did not know what exactly he had come to buy. One of the wealthy Jewish merchants asked him how much money he had in his possession. The simple Jew replied that he had only a hundred rubles. What did he intend to purchase? He did not know. "Well," suggested the wealthy merchant with a smile on his lips, "you look like a religious fellow. Perhaps you would be interested in buying my portion in the world to come. I am willing to sell it to you."
His fellow merchants knew that this merchant was not much of a observant Jew but rather a scoffer who enjoyed making fun of religious Jews. "Well I don't know if I have enough money for that," was his simple, but honest, reply.
"Nonsense," answered the merchants, as his friends looked on in amusement, "for your one hundred rubles I will be happy to sell it to you." The simple Jew gave it serious thought for a moment, then remembering the words of the Baal Shem Tov, he agreed to the utter delight of the on looking merchants. He requested that a contract be drawn up between the Jew and the merchant and dutifully signed by both parties including some of the merchant's friends as witnesses. A copy of the contract was given to each of the parties.
The merchant could hardly contain his laughter until the Jew went upstairs with his copy of the contract to retire for the night. Then the merchant and his friends had a good laugh over the stupidity of this simpleton who believed that he had bought something of worth.
The merchant went home with the money that he had 'earned' and in jovial humor told his wife of the great deal he had made. Laughing he showed his wife the contract that the Jew had signed and then he showed her the easy money that he had made.
"What?" screamed his wife, "You sold your portion in the next world for a measly hundred rubles? Is that what life is worth to you? Only money, money and more money? Are you so coarse that the only thing in life is getting rich? You are disgusting! How do you expect me to live with a man that cares not for the next world? Get out of here you animal and don't come back until you bring me proof that you have bought back your portion in the next world! I refuse to live with someone who has no respect for his portion in the next world!"
The merchant was shocked. He did not anticipate his wife being angry, yet alone being thrown out of his own house. He thought it was a great joke, but he realized that he was sorely mistaken in thinking that his wife, like his friends, would enjoy the little joke. His wife was adamant; without a paper from the Jew saying that he bought back his portion in the next world he would have to sleep on a park bench. Wearily he walked back to the inn and decided he would return the money to the simple Jew.
"The whole thing was a joke," he explained to the Jew. "I want to return to you your money."
"No, no, that is quite fine with me. I accepted it as a serious business transaction and I am quite pleased with my purchase," explained the simple Jew.
"Listen, my friend, I will give you a bit of profit. How about selling me my portion in the next world back to me for, say a hundred and fifty rubles? That is a nice profit, don't you agree?"
"No, no, I am quite happy with my purchase and I do not plan to sell it."
"Listen, my friend, I must buy it back. How about two hundred rubles?"
"Listen, it is important to me to get it back. How about three hundred?"
"All right, my last offer: five hundred rubles. That is a great profit for you."
The Jew turned down the offer. As the offerings of the merchant were turned down the merchant began to break out in a sweat. He knew his wife would never let him back in the house unless he brought a paper that he had bought back his portion in the next world. As the offering went up and up and the simple Jew kept rejecting his offers, he began to cry.
"Please, have mercy on me. If I don't return with my portion of the next world, I am a ruined man. Look my total savings that I have is three thousand rubles, take it and give me back my portion of the next world! I am desperate, please, have mercy on me!"
Finally the Jew acquiesced. A new contract was drawn up selling back the merchant's portion in the next world to him. The merchant was happy but now the simple Jew was sad.
When the simple Jew came back to the Baal Shem Tov he told him of the deal and of the profit that he made. "Still," the simple Jew confessed to the Baal Shem Tov, "I feel that the whole transaction was a disgrace. First I bought this merchant's portion in the next world for so little money, and then I sold it back to him for so much. It seems that I took advantage of him twice."
The Baal Shem Tov reflected for a few minutes and spoke: "Just the opposite. Before you purchased the merchant's portion in the next world, it was not worth anything. Since he himself gave it no value you really over paid. So when you bought it for a hundred rubles, it was not even worth that. When you sold it back to him for three thousand rubles, since the merchant had had a change of heart it was worth more than that. So you received less money for it than it was really worth. In the end, you both profited very nicely. You have now money to pay off your creditors and some money to start out again in life. The scoffing merchant who made fun of religious observance had no portion in the next world since to him it was meaningless and worthless. Now that he realizes that it is very important, even those few mitzvot that he has done will be worth something for him in the next world. I think you both profited nicely."
So, too, it is with us. According to the importance which we place on the mitzvot become their value for us in the next world. To those whom mitzvot are merely a frivolous waste of time, the mitzvot that they perform have little value. To others who invest much time and effort to do the mitzvot in the most elegant and beautiful manner and crown them with love and respect, the reward for that mitzvah is so great that it is beyond our ability to fathom it.
Let us always remember the lofty message in this simple Chassidic teaching and always give respect to G-d's mitzvot.
from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine