Back in 1984, at the third annual Sharing the Fire conference, I went to a session on “Spiritual Stories.” There, a former rabbi, Harold Rabinowitz, told a 20-minute version of what I already knew as a 90-second story:
In a time when the world was in crisis —and in danger of losing hope—the great Jewish mystic, the Baal Shem Tov, went to a holy place in the forest, built an ancient, sacred fire, said a powerful prayer, and spoke the secret, most holy name of God.
When he combined those four great holy acts, hope returned to the world for the next generation.
His successor, though, didn’t know how to pronounce the secret name of God. Still, when the time came to prepare for the next generation, he went to the place in the forest, built the fire, said the prayer—and it was enough. Hope returned for the next generation.
His successor knew only the place and the fire—but that was enough. And the next successor, in his time, knew only the place—but that, too, was enough.
In the next generation, the fourth successor didn’t know any of the holy secrets. What could he do? He sat in his own home and told the story of what the others had done.
And that was enough.
Harold’s version, though, went beyond the bare bones above. It told exactly what happened in each generation to cause each of the holy secrets to be lost.
The Best Story I Could Never Tell
When I heard Harold’s story, I had two main reactions:
- His story was so infused with Jewish mysticism—which I had little background or experience in—that I knew I could never tell it.
- The story had taken some deep part of me in its jaws and held onto me like a dog might hold onto a stick. I could not think of much else but that story.
In the next months, I would say to my friends, “Do you want to hear the best story that I can never tell?” But when I told it to them in conversation, almost every listener said, “Why can’t you tell it?”
So I called Harold Rabinowitz and said, “Can I tell that story? I’ll have to change it, to make it work with a general audience.”
Harold said, “Yes!”
The Story That Took Over My Life
If I had known how much that story was to absorb me over the next 13 years, I might never have called Harold.
It took me six or eight months to research and create a version of his story that people with no knowledge of mystical Judaism could follow. That version was 40 minutes long and didn’t work very well.
As I struggled to fix the story, I became fascinated with how the Baal Shem Tov discovered the four holy secrets. So I read everything I could find in English about his life and legend. By the time I assembled the story of how he gathered those secrets, it was a one-hour first act—with my version of Harold’s story as Act Two. The whole show now lasted 100 minutes, not counting the intermission. I gave the story a name: "The Soul of Hope." Almost two years had passed since I first heard it.
I told that longer story wherever I could, trying to make it work. I had some moderate successes, but also some spectacular failures. After one especially humiliating failure, I decided to put the story aside indefinitely.
A few months later, though, someone who had seen the story in Baltimore called me up and convinced me to offer the story there for Jewish high school students. I agreed, but I felt so ashamed of the story’s failures that I couldn’t bring myself to work on it—or even to rehearse it.
Finding the Pain
So I arrived at the airport near Baltimore a couple hours before the concert, not having worked on it at all for several months. Gail Rosen drove me from the airport and agreed to listen to me tell the story - for the one hour she had free.
I didn’t have time to tell her both acts, so I began to review each of the characters: their personalities, their role in the story, and their individual transformations. After 55 minutes, I had talked about 32 of the 33 characters. The only one left was the unborn soul of the Messiah, who only speaks one line in the story.
As soon as I began to talk about that character, I began to weep. As Gail listened to me cry, I came to understand what that character meant to me.
In the story, the Baal Shem Tov was trying to cause the Messiah to be born, in order to transform the entire world. The Baal Shem Tov's goal wasn’t to fix a few things that were going wrong—not even to stop some villains from doing harm. No, his goal was to make everything in the world as it should be. Now that was an astounding degree of hope!
Suddenly, I was aware of all the pain I carried about dashed hopes. As a child, there were so many disappointments—and so many adults who tried to keep me from feeling my disappointment, because of how painful it felt to them.
As a youngish adult in my twenties and thirties, there was another round of hope-dashing. The societal pressures accumulated, insisting that I be “reasonable” and “practical”: to aim low, accept powerlessness, and stop trying to be so “naive” as to want to change things.
Healing the Hurts
I realized that all these painful feelings about hope were keeping me from being present with the story. Before I could really succeed with this show, then, I’d need to work on these feelings about hope.
I took six or seven more months off from performing the story, working instead on healing my old hurts related to hope.
Returning to the Story
Eventually, I was able to begin revising the story, scene by scene. I could finally work on telling it without trying to stifle my feelings about hope.
After several more years telling the story—from Boston to Belgium, from the U.S. Northwest to New Zealand—I could tell it more relaxedly, more in tune with my listeners.
I could finally let the audience feel their hope—as well as their pain about their own dashed hopes.
A Gift of Hope?
Decades ago, I recorded the entire two-act story of “The Soul of Hope.” I sell it as a double-CD and as downloadable mp3s.
I wish I could give the gift of hope—to you, and to the entire world.
Sadly, I don’t know the sacred place, the ancient fire, the powerful prayer, or the pronunciation of the most holy name of God.
All I can offer you is the story. No strings attached. Just a…hope:
May this story help keep the flame of hope alive in you, so that you can help ignite it, in the next generation.