Stories We Tell: Chaim's Heart

Judaism has a deep and rich tradition of storytelling, of passing down stories from one generation to the next. To carry on that tradition, Stories We Tell, from, will share a new story with you every Thursday. Whether you listen while driving to work, preparing Shabbat dinner, or taking your kids to school, each episode will give you a new story to reflect on and discuss with the people in your life. Stories We Tell is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. 

There was once a little boy who really disliked school, and wouldn't learn. But one thing changed his life - and his heart - forever. Have you ever had a pivotal life changing moment?

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to "Stories We Tell," a podcast from Judaism has always had a deep and rich tradition of storytelling, passing our stories down orally from one generation to the next. And here each week, we share a new story with you to carry on that tradition. This week Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro, the Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the editor of the CCAR Book "Gates of Shabbat," shares the story "Chaim's Heart."

[Rabbi Mark Dov:] Once, long ago, there was a little boy by the name of Chaim. Chaim loved life. Chaim liked to play outdoors, Chaim liked to play all kinds of games. There was only one problem: he didn't like school at all! His mother and father enjoyed watching him have a good time in life, but they knew that Chaim had to go to school. Except when Chaim went to school with all the other children in his little village, Chaim was the one who sat in the class looking miserable. He looked as if he was angry. He used to sit in class with his arms crossed across his chest, and he wouldn't say a thing.

Chaim's mother and father tried their very best to encourage him at school. They told him that learning was important. They told him that when there was a chance to learn Torah, that was especially important for a Jewish boy, but Chaim never listened. He wouldn't listen to his mother or father, to his grandparents, aunts uncles, even to the rabbi. He wouldn't listen to anybody. He was miserable when it came to school.

Chaim's mother and father didn't know what to do until they heard that the Besht --- a famous rabbi, the "Besht" meaning Baal Shem Tov -- they heard that the Besht was going to be coming to their village, and they knew that the Besht not only knew Torah. He also understood people, and he could solve almost anyone's problems. So Chaim's mother and father resolved that on the day when the Besht came to town, they would bring Chaim to see the Besht and see if there couldn't be a solution to this terrible problem. Chaim would not learn.

The sun rose, and early that morning Chaim, along with his mother and father, went to the special room that had been prepared for the Baal Shem Tov -- for the Besht. They waited in line until their turn came, and then when it was their turn, they came in to see the Baal Shem Tov. The door was closed behind them so it was just the Baal Shem Tov with them in the room, and Chaim's father explained to the Baal Shem Tov that Chaim was a wonderful little boy -- except he refused to learn anything, especially to learn Torah! Chaim stood there looking about as angry as ever with his arms crossed in front of his chest, kind of scowling at the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov listened to the story, and then he stood up and he said "So he won't learn! Well, we'll see about that."

And he asked Chaim's mother and father if he could come closer to Chaim. And he did come closer to Chaim. And Chaim looked at him and then the Baal Shem Tov looked back at Chaim. And they stared at each other for about a minute, and as they did that Chaim sort of began to look a little less miserable. And then the Baal Shem Tov said to Chaim's parents - and really to Chaim, "May I give you a hug?" And at just that moment Chaim stepped step forward, the Baal Shem Tov opened his arms and he gave Chaim a hug. He hugged him --oh, for what must have been a minute, or maybe two minutes, and then suddenly Chaim's arms, which were crossed before in front of his chest, they kind of slid down beside him. And the Baal Shem Tov continued to hug Chaim for another minute, and another minute, till maybe ten minutes had gone by, and when it was over he stepped back and said "Well, that's just about it."

Chaim's mother said, "But you didn't say anything to him!"

And the Baal Shem Tov said back to her and to Chaim's dad, "Wait and see. Go home with him and see how he is."

Off they went -- mother, father, and Chaim. On the way home they stopped at a place where they could buy for themselves some chicken for that evening's dinner. The man who was preparing the chicken didn't much look at Chaim and his mother and father. He did what he had to do to prepare the chicken, and then he slammed it down on the counter. Chaim turned to his mother and said, "Why, Mother, is that man so angry? Why is he so sad?" Which of course, is exactly what the butcher was. But Chaim had never said something along these lines, and Chaim's mother was astonished that he thought this and saw this.

A few days later at a school, some children were fighting. Chaim came forward, separated them, and help them make peace. A few days later, some grownups were fighting over the price of a cow. Chaim came forward and made them stop fighting. Soon, Chaim found that the Torah stories were much better than he ever realized they were. You see, they were about people. They were about Abraham and Sarah, and they were about Jacob and Joseph. These were people who were happy and sad. These were people who cried and laughed. These were real people, with real feelings, and now suddenly Chaim began to be fascinated by them. He understood what was happening in their lives. Time went by, and Chaim knew more Torah before you knew it! Chaim knew more Torah than anybody in town. Chaim decided that he himself would become a rabbi and he would become a teacher of Torah -- and that is what he did, beautifully. So much so, that students came from all around to study with him. And once, years later, when Chaim was much older, the students asked him a question. "Rabbi," they said, "Rabbi Chaim, how is it that you have become such a great teacher of Torah? How has that happened?"

He looked at them and smiled and he said, "I'll tell you how it happened. Years ago, when I was a little boy, I didn't want to study Torah. But my parents brought me to see the Baal Shem Tov, and he hugged me. That's all he did. But when he hugged me, I was so close to him, so close to his chest, that I heard his heart. And hearing his heart, that somehow changed me and made me want to hear everyone else's heart to understand what made people tick. And that's how I looked at Torah. What makes people work, what makes them live, and laugh, and love? I figured that if you can listen to someone's heart, then you can understand Torah. If you can listen to someone's heart, then you can be a better Jew, and you can be a better human being."

[URJ Outro: After hearing the story "Chaim's Heart," can you think of a lesson that you learned in life that really, really changed who you were? If you want to share that with us, we'd love to hear about it on social media. You can find us at, and onTwitter, our handle is Thanks for listening to "Stories We Tell." If you enjoyed this week's story, rate and review us on iTunes, and you can always find new episodes every Thursday on, where you can also go to learn a little bit more about Jewish rituals, or culture, or holidays, and more. "Stories We Tell" is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week --l'hitraot!