Wheels of the Soul (as quoted in “The Way” pages 82-85)
When the Baal Shem Tov was living in the town of Medzhibozh, in Poland, it was said that this righteous man had the power to cure all sorts of problems. One day he was visited by a merchant from a nearby town. The merchant told the Baal Shem Tov his troubles, expecting to get a blessing right there on the spot that would alleviate his distress. Instead, the Baal Shem Tov told the merchant to travel to the little town of Trusti and ask for a man named Eliezer ben Zerah.
The merchant was disconcerted by this advice. “Trusti? Trusti is a journey of three days and nights along a very bad road. Can’t you take care of my troubles right here?” But the Baal Shem Tov insisted, “Go to Trusti and ask for Eliezer ben Zerah. He will help you.” Reluctantly, the merchant did as he was told.
The trip to Trusti was long indeed. Along the way, the merchant had plenty of time to think about all the possible reasons that the Baal Shem Tov had sent him on such an uncomfortable journey. “This Eliezer ben Zerah,” he thought, “he must be a very great man indeed if the Baal Shem Tov sends me to him. And if he is a great man, he might be a rich man as well. Yes, of course, that is why I am going to see him! He is a rich man who is going to give me money to solve my financial problems! And if he is rich, well, then, he must have sons. One of these sons is probably a perfect match for my daughter, who thinks no man is good enough. Yes, I’m certain of it! This is the reason I am going to Trusti. The Baal Shem Tov is a genius.”
So it was that the merchant arrived in the tiny town of Trusti with great expectations of what the wealthy Eliezer ben Zerah was about to do for him. The merchant hopped out of the carriage and asked the livery man, “Eliezer ben Zerah. Where does he live?” But the livery man didn’t know the name. “How could you not know Eliezer den Zerah? A great man, a rich man, with sons, many sons!” But the livery man just shrugged, “I don’t know him. Why don’t you ask the butcher? He knows everyone.” And he directed the merchant to the butcher’s house.
But the butcher didn’t know Eliezer ben Zerah either. And worse, neither did the postman, and even worse, neither did the local rabbi. “How can this be?” the merchant whined. “The great Baal Shem Tov himself sent me here to ask for Eliezer ben Zerah. He’s supposed to help me.” The rabbi was sympathetic. “Look,” he said, “one of the women in my congregation is over a hundred years old, but she’s still very, very sharp in the head. She’s lived here her whole life and she knows the whole history of Trusti and everyone that ever lived in the town. If anyone knows this Eliezer ben Zerah, she will.”
So the rabbi escorted the merchant to the old woman and they asked her about Eliezer ben Zerah. A glimmer of recognition passed over her face. “Eliezer ben Zerah?” she said. “Yes, yes,” the merchant said, excited by the prospect of finally finding someone who knew the name. The old woman stood up, approached the merchant, looked him in the eye, and said, “He was the worst.” She spat on the ground. “He was rotten! He beat his wife. He beat his children. He ran around. He abused his animals. He drank. He punched the rabbi in the nose. Everybody hated him. He never did a good thing in his entire life. I don’t even want to talk about him. When he died, half the town celebrated.”
“He died?” the shocked merchant said, “When?”
“Fifty-seven years ago,” the old woman replied. “That’s why no one else remembers. They are too young.”
The merchant was very upset. Here he was expecting all his troubles to be solved, he had traveled all this way, and now he found that the person who was supposed to help him was not only a rotten drunkard, but worse, had been dead for fifty-seven years.
All the way back to Medzhibozh he stewed and steamed about it, so that by the time he returned to the Baal Shem Tov, the merchant was very, very angry. “What kind of trick is this?” the merchant shouted. “Don’t you know I’m a very busy man? I traveled all the way to Trusti for nothing. You wasted my time! I thought this Eliezer ben Zerah was supposed to help me? I didn’t get any money. He didn’t have any sons for my daugher. I didn’t even get a blessing. The man is dead.”
The Baal Shem Tov waited for the merchant to calm down and then said, “I never said anything about money, or sons. But the blessing, that you did get.”
“What blessing? How could I get a blessing from a dead man?”
“How old are you?” the Baal Shem Tov suddenly asked.
“How old am I? I’m fifty-six years old. What does my age have to do with anything?”
And then the Baal Shem Tov said, “I want you to know that in your previous life, Eliezer ben Zerah was you. Knowing how terrible you were in your last incarnation, you should thank the Creator every day for giving you so much in this life. All your troubles now are the result of your behavior then. Believe me, as bad as you were, it could be a lot worse. The blessing is the knowledge that you’re getting another chance despite what you did last time.”
(Michael Berg, Rabbi – The Kabbalah Centre, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2001)