Learning how to forgive: The famous story from the Baal Shem Tov

One of the Baal Shem Tov’s students once asked him the seminal question: ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ In response, the Baal Shem Tov sent him to a well in a nearby forest, and told him to go and climb a tree there, and keep his eyes peeled.

The student was a little confused, but hey, it’s the Baal Shem Tov! And he knew that his holy teacher certainly had good reasons for giving him these strange instructions. The student got there, climbed the tree, and waited.

The first person came along, stopped at the well, took a big shluck of water, then walked off – but the student saw that he’d left his fat purse of money behind him, at the well.

Next, a young lad came along, saw the purse full of money, and happily took it away with him.

The last person came along, stopped at the well for a drink – and got beaten up by the first person who’d discovered his lost purse, and had come back to claim it. When he couldn’t find it, he was convinced the last person there had stolen it, and started raining punches down on him, so that he’d confess where he’d hidden it.

When all this was over, the bemused student climbed down the tree, and came back to the BESHT for an explanation.

The Baal Shem Tov told him:

“In a previous life, the first person who lost the purse was a litigant in a trial where he should have lost and been liable to pay a lot of money – except that he bribed the judge to decide in his favour.

The second person who found the purse was the other litigant, who was dishonestly swindled out of his money. Now, the account was settled.

And the third person who got beaten up, was the bent judge.”


The secret of forgiveness

It’s a simple story, but it teaches us a profound lesson about we can start to forgive, namely:

God did, does and will do everything in the world. EinOdMilvado. Hashem is all there is.

That’s the first of the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith, and it’s a fundamental tenet of Judaism.

But how does knowing that God is doing everything in the world, which you can sum up in the phrase: ‘having emuna’ going to help us to ask for forgiveness, and to forgive others? Let’s find out.

Let’s start by seeing how this idea changes the whole picture when we need to ask for forgiveness.


Asking our kids for forgiveness

A little while back, I got an email from a lady who was having some ongoing, chronic health issues that no medicine or antibiotics could touch with a barge pole. My correspondent started talking to God about her health issues, and BH, they started to improve.

A little later, she sent me a heart-wrenching email asking for advice on how she could make teshuva for messing up her grown-up kids, who were depressed, angry and struggling emotionally and relationship-wise. My correspondent had had a very stormy relationship with her spouse, and there was a lot of anger, yelling and tension in the house, which spilled-over into her parenting. She was blaming herself mercilessly for all her kids’ problems, and didn’t know what to do next.

Before I continue, you should know that the situation my correspondent described is unfolding itself in most homes today, even orthodox Jewish homes. Spiritually and emotionally, Am Yisrael is in a huge mess, and part of the reason I wanted to refer to this particular bit of correspondence is because I know it resonates with that secret part of every parent, every mother, who secretly fears that she’s messing her kids up.

And we probably all really are!

So anyway, the main gist of what I suggested she should try to do to get things moving, forgiveness and teshuva-wise was as follows:

1) Apologise to the children themselves for her parenting shortcomings, and validate their experiences and reactions.

This cannot be overstated,in terms of setting things right with the people we’ve hurt, especially when those people are our children. But it’s so hard to do, I know!



I explained to my respondent that she’d only parented the same way she’d been parented herself, and that I could guarantee it hadn’t been anything like ideal. The key to getting things to move was to practise as much self-compassion as possible.

So what happened next?

You’ll find out in the next post…

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