At his death, which he had foreseen, the Ba`al Shem said: “I have no worries with regard to myself. For I know quite clearly: I am going out at one door and I shall go in at another.”
So, then, I will tell you. Many years ago, when our village was still so small it had to share its name with half a dozen other villages, there lived here the greatest of all deathsayers, the one who was called Mordechai. What is a deathsayer? Yes, we don’t have such a thing as deathsayers nowadays. Nowadays we have to guess for ourselves when and how we will die. But in those days a deathsayer could tell you, if you were lucky and found a good one.
Not that Mordechai ever told anyone exactly when they would die. No, he always claimed that was beyond even his skill (though many of us thought he did know but refused to say). In what circumstances a person would die, however—whether far from home, or surrounded by family, or asleep in bed, or at some moment of great joy—that was within Mordechai’s ability to foretell. And, sooner or later, almost everyone in the neighboring villages, and some even from distant ones, paid him a visit. And they almost always went away comforted.
“Sarah,” one woman might say to another, “you look so sad since Mendel died and Ruth and her husband moved to the city. Have you thought of visiting Mordechai the deathsayer? I went to him last year myself. I can’t tell you what he said because then it might not come true. But, ever since, I have felt so peaceful, because now I know who will be with me in my last moments.”
“But suppose his news is bad?” Sarah might whisper. “Suppose I am destined to die alone? Or in pain?”
“Only you can decide whether to visit Mordechai or not. But is knowing bad news worse than fearing it?”
And so perhaps Sarah would visit Mordechai, bringing with her a gift of eggs or onions or a small coin. Now Mordechai was not one of those hasty, careless deathsayers who told his neighbors their deaths while they stood in the doorway. No indeed, it was “Sit down, have a glass of tea.” It was “So tell me about yourself.” It was “What brings you to me at this time?” And among his questions was always “Tell me the death you imagine for yourself.”
“You mean the death I fear?”
“Or the death you hope. Or merely the death you foresee.”
Then, after they had drunk tea together and talked about sickness and grandchildren, and after Mordechai learned how people foresaw their own deaths, he would put his two hands on his visitor’s temples, close his eyes, and—as he once explained it to me—listen with his fingertips. Then he would open his eyes and begin to speak. “I see a wedding, a joyous wedding,” he might say. “You will die quietly one day soon after helping to celebrate the wedding of someone very close to you. You will die content.”
“Oh!” the person would say—perhaps it was a mother—”It must be my youngest daughter! Is it my youngest daughter whose wedding you foresee?”
“That I cannot tell you,” Mordechai would answer. “I see only the wedding of someone very dear. And you must tell no one. For, if you do, then what I have seen may not come to pass.”
“It must be my youngest daughter,” the mother would say. And then she would gladly give Mordechai the gift she had brought and hurry home to smile at her daughter and live cheerful and content. For, if the young man came soon, then her daughter would be happy. And, if he came later, yet he would come, and the mother could enjoy the days of waiting.
Or perhaps it was an old man who visited Mordechai, a grandfather ripe in years who still mended shoes by firelight after supper but spent much of the warmest part of the day dozing on a sunny bench before his cottage. “I see a death one night in your sleep,” Mordechai might tell him. “It may be tonight, it may be next year, it may be many years. That I cannot say. But one night you will go to sleep, and in the morning you will not awake. There will be no pain. And there will be no trouble for your son and his wife. They will grieve, yes, but they will be thankful you died peacefully.”
The old man would go home smiling. And each morning when he awoke, he would smile again at the warm sun on the windowpane and think, “Well, then, it is not today. Perhaps it will be tomorrow!”
Or maybe a rich merchant in the pride and prime of life might visit Mordechai. There were some rich men in those days in the villages hereabouts. Perhaps he would be impatient with the tea drinking and the conversation. “Just tell me my death and be done with it,” he might say.
But Mordechai would refuse to be hurried. And, as he sat with his two old hands on the rich man’s temples, the rich man would become quiet and patient. “You will be very old when you die,” Mordechai might say finally. “Your children will bless you, and you will bless them all in turn. You will have given them your money some years before. Your business will be managed successfully by others. You will die toward evening surrounded by your grieving children and grandchildren. I think I see even great grandchildren. Your last sight will be of them smiling at you through their tears, and then your eyes will close, and a vision of your dear wife in heaven will come to you, and then you too will die.” At this, the rich merchant would go home satisfied, and his grown children would marvel at his increasing generosity.
Or a young maiden in grief or pain might visit Mordechai. Perhaps she has been disappointed in love. Or suffers a fatal illness. Perhaps she will whisper to Mordechai that she has thought of ending her own life. But, as Mordechai sits with his hands on her temples, she will grow calm and unafraid. “You will die soon,” Mordechai may then tell her. “It may not be tomorrow, and it may not be next week. But it will be soon. I see no need for you to commit the sin of self-destruction. You will lie in your own bed at home. Your mother will hold your right hand, and your father, your left. There may be someone else in the room, but that I cannot see clearly. I can see that all who are there will be touched by your courage and acceptance. In later years, your death will make their deaths easier. I myself will not be there. But I wish I could be.”
And so the maiden would return home with renewed courage. And perhaps she would die soon from her illness. Or perhaps she would live a year. Or two. Or three. And she might find her broken heart had one day healed. And another suitor might come. And she might marry and have children.
Then, if Mordechai were still alive himself, she might return to him, a stout and prosperous young matron dressed in rustling silk, and say, “You were wrong, good old Mordechai, when you told me I would die soon so many years ago.”
And Mordechai might smile and say, “I am not always right, my dear. Sometimes, though I try, I do not see clearly. How fortunate I feel to have been mistaken in your case.”
Mordechai himself died one day, of course (may he rest in peace!). And there are no deathsayers nowadays. But sometimes I wonder how Mordechai foresaw his own death. And I wonder what Mordechai would say to me if I could still go to visit him. I wonder what he would say to you?
Anne Waldron Neumann earned a doctorate in English from Johns Hopkins, and has published a dozen literary folktales as well as a book, Should You Read Shakespeare? She is currently working on a fiction-writing handbook based on Jane Austen’s example.