— From the Rebbe’s Torah —
Begin with joke:
Officer: “Sir, have you been drinking?”
Motorist: “No, officer. Nope. No way. I’m a non-drinker now. I gave up drinking and I haven’t touched a drop since.”
Officer: “That’s great to hear, sir. Congratulations!”
Motorist: “Thank you, officer. Yep, best decision of my life.”
Officer: “That’s really good to hear, sir. How long’s it been for you?”
Motorist: “Gosh, um, ten… eleven minutes or so.”
Free choice is what defines humankind. Animals know how to take care of themselves; they can show affection; they can strategize how to fell their prey; but, with all due respect to animals, they can’t really get philosophical. If they get a strong urge to do something not good, they can’t stop themselves by realizing that what they would like to do is immoral. If they are threatened or screamed at, they may stop, but that is their instinct for self-preservation kicking in; it’s not that they came to the realization that it’s better to be tamer.
This is why animals are not punished or rewarded for their actions from above; for what they do is by their instinct. Humans, who have the capacity of understanding, and can realize the folly of their actions, thereby have free choice, and can decide what they would like to do, and are punished or rewarded for their actions.
A tale from the Talmud which illustrates this point:
Four hundred barrels of wine belonging to Rav Huna — a talmudic sage — fermented and turned into vinegar, causing him great financial loss.
Some sages entered to visit him, and told him that it may be a good idea for him to examine his actions, as perhaps he committed a transgression for which he is being punished.
Rav Huna said to them: If someone has heard something improper that I have done, let him say so. They said to him: We have heard that the Master does not give a share of his grapevines to his tenant farmers. A tenant farmer, who is always hired to work your field, is entitled to a portion of the crop grown on his landlord’s property, as well as a share of the vines planted during a given year.
Rav Huna said to them: Does this tenant farmer leave me anything from the produce that he grows on my property? He steals it all. Consequently, in denying him his share of the grapevines I am simply recouping that which was stolen from me by this tenant farmer.
They said to him: That is the meaning of the folk saying: One who steals from a thief has a taste of theft. Despite the fact that the property was stolen to begin with, one nevertheless engages in theft. Although he did not violate a prohibition per se, it is still a form of theft, and one who is held to a higher standard than others will be punished for it.
He said to them: I accept upon myself to give my tenant farmer his portion in the future.
Thereupon, as a result of Rav Huna’s repentance, God restored his loss. Some say his vinegar turned back into wine, and some say that the price of vinegar rose and it was sold at the price of wine.
So, Rav Huna utilized his free choice to realize his mistake, and he corrected it, which resulted in his being rewarded by Hashem.
In this week’s parsha, we learn how Yaakov’s sons and Yosef’s brothers begin to understand the folly of their decision to sell Yosef into slavery, in last week’s parsha.
Yosef, now the ruler of Egypt, was giving them a hard time. When they came down to Egypt to buy food because of the famine, Yosef first accused them of being spies, and held one of the brothers as hostage, until they could prove their innocence.
Not knowing that the man causing their troubles was actually their long-lost brother, Yosef; the brothers told themselves that this was happening to them because of how they had treated their brother: “And they said to one another, "Indeed, we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us."
Now, Reuven, the one who had told them to leave Yosef alone, in last week’s parsha, dug into their guilty feelings, and said, “I told you so!” “Didn't I tell you, 'Do not sin against the lad,'? but you did not listen.”
Why would he do this? Why would he tell them that it was he who had been right, just as they were realizing their mistake? Why can’t he let them be in their repentance without congratulating himself?!
Now, talking about remorse:
A man woke up in the morning deeply repentant after bickering with his wife the previous night. He noticed with dismay the crate of beer bottles that had caused him to be that way.
He took it outside and started smashing the empty bottles one by one onto the wall.
He smashed the first bottle exclaiming, "you are the reason I’m bickering with my wife".
He smashed the second bottle, "you are the reason I’m bickering with my children".
He smashed the third bottle, "you are the reason I don't have a decent job".
When he took the fourth bottle, he realized that the bottle was still sealed and was full. He hesitated for only a moment and said "you stand aside, I know you were not involved".
In general, returning to G-d after we’ve sinned — teshuvah — can happen in two ways: 1. It can be a result of a circumstance which causes us to regret what we did; when our actions result in undesired results. 2. It can be that we truly regret what we’ve done, because we understand the folly and immorality of our actions. The second can be a result of the first; but it will not necessarily always be.
When the brothers said, “Indeed, we are guilty of what we are going through, for what we did to our brother,” they were expressing their remorse for having done what they’d done, because of what they felt it was causing them to go through. They did not express guilt for their actual actions.
And this is why Reuven chimed in with, “Didn't I tell you, saying, 'Do not sin against the lad'” — he wasn’t trying to stick it to them and congratulate himself; rather, he was pointing out what they were still missing. They were lacking the recognition that what they had done had been wrong, and that this is why they shouldn’t have done it. He was pointing out to them that it was not enough that they recognized that what they had done was having negative results.
That is not true returning to G-d — which is returning to become closer to G-d. It is a remorse which is absorbed within thinking about oneself. Reuven wished to elevate them and cause them to think about what they had actually done, and thereby, be able to truly return to G-d and his ways.
(He was telling them that they were missing the point.
Which reminds me of the man who was flying in a hot-air balloon and realized he was lost.
He reduced height and spotted a man below. He lowered the balloon farther and shouted, "Excuse me! Can you tell me where I am?"
The man below said: "Yes, you're in a hot-air balloon, hovering 30 feet above this field."
"You must be an engineer," said the balloonist.
"I am," replied the man. "How did you know?"
"Well," said the balloonist, "everything you have told me is technically correct, but it's no use to anyone."
The man below said, "You must be a manager."
"I am," replied the balloonist, "but how did you know?"
"Well," said the man, "you don't know where you are or where you're going, but you expect me to be able to help."
Talking about missing the point…)
Another of Reuven’s points was that they should return to Hashem of their own free choice, and use the quality of humanity — as we discussed at the beginning of the sermon — to return to G-d, and not just because they felt coerced by circumstance.
There’s even more to Reuven’s intention; for the quality of free choice isn’t only that it is unique to humans:
The reason humans were given free choice is because the human was created in the image of G-d. Just as G-d has free choice, and can do whatever he desires, he embedded this quality within mankind with regard to their decision making abilities regarding themselves. (Not that they can decide and follow through on whatever they want to happen in the world — as G-d can...)
Therefore, when we exercise our free choice in our connection to G-d, we are tapping into the deepest facets of our soul — the part of us which is the way it is because that is the way of G-d’s infinity.
When we use the power of free choice, which emanates from the essence of our souls, to decide that we will return to G-d, even though we’ve been distant until now in one way or another, we have thereby taken advantage of a dark situation, and used it to reveal the deepest of light — the power of the essence of our souls.
(Here’s a story which is a little off topic, but interesting and connected:
It is a story which was told by a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov:
“Once the Baal Shem took ten chassidim — I was one of them — and told us to get in his carriage shortly before Shabbat. We didn’t ask any questions, being used to such journeys. We entered and sat down and, as usual, we immediately felt as though the carriage was flying in the air. Moments later, we landed.
“We got out and found that we were in a place we had never seen before. It was a large town square that was completely deserted. Even the stores were all closed, and off to one side stood a stage or pulpit, that looked recently built, surrounded by several large crosses and flaming torches, as though there was about to be some sort of large outdoor church ceremony.
“The Besht told us to follow him as he quickly left the square, walked quickly through some winding streets, and in just minutes went through the gates of what was obviously the Jewish ghetto. He stopped before one of the houses and began pounding on the door, until a small peephole opened up and someone frantically whispered from inside.
“‘Are you mad?! What are you doing out there?!’ Several bolts and locks clicked and slid until the door opened and the owner frantically motioned for all of us to enter, slamming it shut behind us.
“‘Tonight is one of their holidays! The worst of the worst!!’ he said, short of breath, as he was reclosing the bolts and locks as fast as possible. ‘You’re lucky I let you in! In another few minutes the entire town square is going to be filled with bloodthirsty Jew-haters from all around, and the devil himself, Bishop Thaddeus, yemach shemo, will give his annual Easter speech. It’s full of venom against us. Come, follow me—we will make place for you in our underground shelter. Come! We mustn’t waste an instant! Before they start going wild.’
“But the Besht turned to one of his pupils and calmly said, ‘Go back to the square, and when the bishop begins to speak, go up to the stage, pull on his robe, and tell him that I wish to speak to him urgently.’
“The owner of the house was shocked! He watched in wide-eyed astonishment as the chassid actually began to reopen the bolts, open the door and slip outside. He didn’t know if he should lock them again or not; he’d never seen anything like it in his life! It was like seeing someone walk into a burning furnace!
“The chassid, once outside, made his way back through the winding streets ’till he reached the square. It was already filled with thousands of people, and more were silently arriving from all sides. A strange, cold silence hung in the air, and it was beginning to get dark.
“The bishop strode to the front of the stage, as if from nowhere, and stood imposingly before the crowd in his bright crimson robes and high pointed red hat. The torchlight danced weirdly in his eyes and made the huge golden cross hanging around his neck gleam diabolically. To make matters worse, the fires and huge crosses surrounding the stage reminded the chassid of the stories he had heard of the Inquisition. But he pushed all these thoughts from his mind, waited for the bishop to begin, closed his eyes for a moment, whispered Shema Yisrael, and with his head down, began gently pushing his way to the podium.
“Amazingly, no one even noticed him. They were so transfixed by the bishop that they just moved out of the way, and before he knew it, he reached the front. He took a deep breath, said another Shema Yisrael, grabbed the robe of the bishop and pulled twice.
“The bishop was just beginning his tirade when he felt the tug at his garment and looked down. He was startled, outraged, his face became livid with anger; but before he could utter a sound the chassid looked him in the eyes and said, ‘My master and teacher, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, wishes to see you, and he says you should come urgently.’
“Suddenly the bishop’s face became pale and his eyes opened wide, as though he was afraid. ‘Not now!’ he whispered after a few seconds of confusion. ‘Tell him that I can’t come now. Later! Tell him later. Go away!’
“Miraculously, the entire crowd was all still standing like statues, as though hypnotized, and noticed none of this. So the chassid backed his way out and returned alone to the Besht, convinced that he had fulfilled his mission.
“But the Besht wasn’t pleased. ‘Go back and tell the bishop that if he doesn’t come now, it will be too late.’
“Without hesitation the chassid turned and did as he was told. He left the house, returned to the town square, pushed his way through the crowd, and pulled on the bishop’s robe just as before.
“But this time, when the bishop heard the Besht’s message, he was really stunned. He took a few steps back, put his head in his hands, and then, turning his face to heaven, he yelled to the crowd: ‘I’m receiving a message from the Lord!! I must be alone!’
“He motioned the chassid to leave, watched him as he walked toward the Jewish section, and then he himself descended from the back of the stage and headed in that direction, holding his hat under his arm.
“Minutes later he was standing with the chassid before the house in the Jewish quarter. ‘Tell him to remove his crosses before he enters,’ said the Besht from inside. The bishop did so, and as he entered the house and saw the face of the holy man, he fell to the floor and began weeping like a baby!
“The Baal Shem turned to the others and explained. ‘This man was born a Jew. He even had a bar mitzvah. But shortly thereafter he was lured to the Church and eventually became the anti-Semite he is today. I saw in heaven that now was a propitious time to bring him to his senses.’
“After the bishop stopped weeping, the Besht told him to stand and follow him into a side room, where they closed the door and spoke for several minutes. No one knows what they said in there, but after a while the bishop came out dressed in different clothes, left the house, and no one has seen him since. And that is the end of the story.’”
It turned out that this man ended up returning to this Judaism. At the height of darkness, when he stood and gave an anti-Semitic speech, he was brought back to the light of the Torah.
In the case of this story, it was the Ba’al Shem Tov who brought him back.
But it gives us perspective regarding our work within ourselves as well: Darkness doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. When we experience our own darkness, it can and should serve as a jumpstart to a greater and stronger connection to G-d, when we make that free-choice decision, which emanates from the deepest part of our souls.)
This is also what happened during the time of Chanukah, which we are now in the midst of celebrating:
It was a time of darkness. The Greeks were after the Jews and their connection to G-d, but what it aroused in the Jewish people was their tendency for self-sacrifice — to connect with Hashem in a way which is higher than understanding; to pit their few selves against the mighty armies of Antiochus.
This self-sacrifice that they experienced and expressed resulted in their ultimate victory and triumph over the great power of the Greeks. It was their pure and free choice to connect to G-d, regardless and in spite of the situation in which they found themselves, which released the deepest facets of their soul, which in turn caused Hashem to show his deepest powers, and brought about the great miracle of Chanukah.
They went from darkness to light — and we can too, each in our own way.
A good Shabbos.