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Whispers from Another World

Shlomo Yosef Zevin

A once prosperous merchant who had lost his entire fortune came to Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apta with the request that he intercede in heaven on his behalf, and advise him as well what to do: He had a daughter of marriageable age, and hardly a penny left to his name. The rabbi asked him how much he needed and how much he had, and he answered that he needed 1,000 rubles for the wedding, and in his pocket he had exactly one ruble.

"Go in peace," said the rabbi, "And take up of the first offer of a transaction that comes your way. And may God make you prosper!"

A strange instruction, indeed: business without capital? But after this first thought, the man relied on his faith in the words of the rabbi and set out on his way.

He arrived at an inn which he found was frequented by dealers in gems. He approached the table around which a group of them were crowded, and examined the diamonds that were set out on it.

"What are you looking at here?" Asked one of the dealers. "Are you perhaps interested in buying one of these diamonds?"

"I am," replied the man.

"And how much money do you have, if I may ask?" said the dealer.

"One ruble," was the reply.

The whole group burst out in uproarious laughter.

The dealer continued boldly: "Listen here! I've got a deal for you that needs only one ruble. Buy my share in the World to Come!"

"I am agreeable," said the new arrival, "on condition that you confirm the sale in writing it, and sign it according to law."

The gem dealer agreed, and egged on by the derisive laughter of his friends, he wrote out and signed a contract of sale, which he duly handed over to the purchaser in exchange for his last ruble.

Having nothing more to do in the company of these people, the traveler found himself a quiet corner, took out of his pack the volume of Talmud he always carried with him, and was soon deep in thought.

While they were still chuckling with scorn at the hapless fool who had just paid out his last ruble for a commodity that did not yet exist, in walked the wife of that gem dealer. As it happened, most of his gems in fact belonged to her; in fact, his whole wealth had come to him through an estate which she had inherited. She asked what they were snickering about, and they told her.

Incensed, she turned upon her husband: "Just in case you did have a share in the next world coming to you, did you have to go and sell it, and remain naked like some heathen? I'm not going to live with a pagan like you! Come along with me to the rabbi and let's arrange our divorce!"

He stammered out an attempt at an excuse: He had only meant the whole thing to be a joke, and so on. His wife remained unconvinced; she was not going to be the wife of a pagan who had no share in the World to Come!

Her husband begged one of the employees of the inn to search around urgently for the new arrival.

When he joined the distraught couple, the gem dealer addressed him as follows: "Listen here. I'm sure you realize, don't you, that everything that passed between us was one big joke. Here, take your ruble back, and return me the contract, okay?"

"Not at all," said the traveler. "Business is business. I certainly had no joke in mind!"

"If so," said the gem dealer, "I'll let you make a profit of a few rubles on the deal, and you can sell me back again what you bought from me."

"The profit I demand," said the traveler, "is 1,000 rubles."

"Are you out of your mind?" shouted the dealer, red with rage. "For some miserable little piece of paper that I gave you, you're demanding such a fortune?"

At this point his wife chimed in decisively: "Even if he demands 5,000 rubles you must ransom your share in the World to Come."

The dealer quietly offered the stranger 100 rubles, but he refused.

"I would like you to know," he said, "that I am not the impractical fool you and your friends take me for. I too was once a businessman, except that I lost my fortune, and it was the rabbi of Apta who advised me to accept the first offer of a transaction that presented itself -- because I need 1,000 rubles with which to marry off my daughter. And I am not going to forgo one solitary kopek out of that 1,000 rubles!"

Two hundred, 300 -- each successive offer received the same answer: not a kopek less than 1,000 rubles. Words were never going to make any impression on a man as stubborn as this, and in the end the gem dealer had no option but to give him that whole sum in exchange for his bill of sale.

His wife now turned to the stranger: she would very much like to see the rabbi of Apta.

"My pleasure," he said. "Allow me to direct you to him."

When they arrived, the woman said to the rabbi: "I am of course pleased that through my agency such good fortune should come the way of that poor fellow. But I have one question for you, rabbi. Is my husband's share in the World to Come in fact worth 1,000 rubles?"

"At the time of the first sale," replied the rabbi, "when he sold his share in the World to Come for the price of one ruble, his share in it was not worth even that one ruble. But at the time of the second sale, when he bought back his share in the World to Come for 1,000 rubles and helped marry off the daughter of a poor man, his share in that world became worth far, far more than 1,000 rubles. No money can measure its worth."

Reprinted with permission from "A TREASURY OF A CHASSIDIC TALES ON THE TORAH" Published by ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications Ltd., Brooklyn, NY

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