By Rabbi Akiva Wagner
Rabbi Wagner relates: the 4th of Nissan, will be the yahrzeit of my father R’ Refoel Menachem Nachum ben R’ Yitzchok Eizik z”l. Among other things, my father was a master story-teller. He had an appropriate story for every occasion, which was always both entertaining and educating. When we were children, in summer camp, the letters we received from home were always in great demand by our bunkmates, who relished the stories that they always contained (in later years his letters became much more lengthy, and were printed in many copies and sent to a growing crowd of “subscribers”). In those years, one of the subjects of many of his stories – both written and oral – was Hershele Ostropoler, about whom he told (amongst numerous other stories) the following:
In one city there lived a wealthy man who was known as a stingy miser. Despite living in great opulence, it was close to impossible to coax him to part with even a few pennies. The various meshulochim, paupers and fundraisers had long learned not to waste their time and effort on this skinflint, and would skip over his home from the start and head for more promising addresses.
When Hershel heard about this individual, he decided that he would teach him a lesson. He got into a conversation with him, and in the course of the discussion lamented the fact that he had lost his handkerchief. “Please might you be so kind as to lend me a handkerchief?”
The rich man was very troubled. It was against his nature to let any of his belongings out of his possession. But he couldn’t see any way to justify refusing such a simple request. So, after emphasizing to Hershel to make sure to remember to return it promptly in 2 days, he reluctantly handed him an inexpensive silk handkerchief.
Exactly 2 days later Hershel returned to the miser with his silk handkerchief, along with another smaller one. “What’s this?” asked the gvir. “Well”, explained Hershel, “I had the most phenomenal experience. While your handkerchief was by me, it had a baby. I figured, since it was your handkerchief, by rights the baby should belong to you, so here it is”.
“. . a baby . . what are you talking about?” spluttered the rich man. But then he quickly thought the better of it. If this simpleton wants to give me a gift for nothing, I surely won’t stop him.
A few days later, Hershel was back at the wealthy man’s house. After greeting him warmly like old friends, Herschel began telling him how he’s making a simcha and is short one tablecloth, and could he perhaps borrow one. Under normal circumstances the miser wouldn’t even have considered it, but after his earlier experience he was more open to dealing with this man, and he duly lent him his tablecloth.
Sure enough, two days later Hershel came back with the tablecloth along with a second smaller one. The rich man was already convinced that this is someone that it’s worth his while to lend to. The next time it was an expensive silver spoon, which was returned with a smaller imitation.
The next week, Hershel approached the rich man with a new request. He was going to a simcha, and needed to borrow a mink coat. The mink coat was worth thousands of dollars, and the miser hesitated; – could he really risk lending out such an expensive article. But gradually he decided that it would be worth his while; – the new small mink coat that he would surely get – “the baby” – would itself be priceless. So with only the smallest worry he handed over the expensive coat, admonishing Hershel to be sure to return it on time.
The rich man sat at home rubbing his hands together in anticipation of the easy profit he was soon to make from the foolish fellow. But the day of its return arrived, and there was no sign of Hershel. An hour went by, and another hour, the gvir waited until the next morning in growing concern. Finally he could no longer contain himself, and he ran out to look for Hershel. As soon as he found him, he confronted him: “Where is the mink coat?”
Hershel looked at him very solemnly. “Ah, your mink coat, there was a tragedy, such terrible news”.
“What are you talking about?!” the gvir was shouting by now in a panic, “where is the coat?”
“I’m so sorry to break the news to you”, Hershel said mournfully, “but your coat died yesterday”.
“What are you talking about? Are you mad? Who ever heard of a coat dying? Stop this nonsense immediately! Give me back my coat.”
“Well”, Hershel retorted, “when I told you about your handkerchief and your tablecloth and your silver spoon giving birth you accepted it. If they can have babies, then your mink can die!”
[In fact, there is a similar idea in a gemara in Shabbos: Hashem says to Yitzchok Avinu “Your sons have sinned”. So Yitzchak said to him: “What do You mean my sons? When You were proud of them and happy with them, then it made sense to refer to them as Your firstborn son – “b’ni bechori Yisroel”. Now that they’re misbehaving, suddenly you’re not related to them anymore, and they became my sons? Where’s the consistency?]
Perhaps this can shed some light on the theme of this week’s parsha. Chazal say that when Moshe Rabbeinu heard about the severe tuma of tumas mes his face turned colours from anguish, and he exclaimed: ‘how can someone at such a stage possibly become purified?’
The Posuk tells us that ואתם הדבקים בה’ אלקיכם חיים, – “life” is synonymous with attachment to G-dliness. The less someone is attached to Hashem ch”v, the less he carries out Hashem’s desires as expressed in Torah and mitzvos, the less he is alive. Death represents the complete opposite of cleaving to Hashem, the ultimate state of detachment from G-dliness r”l.
Even Moshe Rabenu, the quintessential oheiv Yisroel (as Chazal say יוכיחן משה שאוהבן), could not find any hope of recovery for a person who has stooped so low. נתכרכמו פניו של משה ואמר במה יהי’ טהרתן של אלו
But the Aibishter said to him: ‘Not to worry! There is a solution, – The mitzvah of Parah Adumah’.
Parah Adumah is called Chukas haTorah. Even Shlomo haMelech, the wisest of all men was left stumped by it. It is symbolic of serving Hashem beyond reason. Put aside your intellect, let go of your constant calculating-ness and your recurring rationalization, and serve Hashem in a manner that is devoid of reason and beyond reason.
So we say: How can that be? The whole advantage of a human being over an animal is his intellect. The greatest virtue that a person can have is conducting himself according to his intellect. How can it possibly be demanded of us to put all this aside and to conduct ourselves in an irrational way? How can I possibly be expected to put my reasoning aside and be a radical, fanatical, extremist?!
And, perhaps, Hashem responds to us: “Whoa, what happened when you were separating yourself from Elokus to begin with, then you didn’t make any of these calculations? When you chose to sin, about which the Torah teaches that “ein odom oiver aveira eloh im kein nichnas boi ruach shtus”, – that committing a sin ch”v is the ultimate folly and foolishness, and that one who does so is “nidmeh kabeheimah”, – is similar to an animal, at that time you weren’t bothered by your behaving decidedly unintellectually. When you chose to follow the irrational passions of the animalistic instinct within you, then it didn’t bother you that you are missing what distinguishes man from animal.
Now, when it is time to repent, you suddenly remind yourself that you’re a respected person, a maskil, oisgetracht and calculated?! No sir! If irrational conduct was good enough for you when you were busy rebelling against Hashem, then it will have to be acceptable to you when it comes time to rectify your actions as well.
A Jew once approached one of the tzaddikim with an urgent request: “I have sinned”, wailed the Jew, “and I need a tikun”.
“If you have sinned”, replied the tzaddik, “then do Teshuva”. But the poor Jew was not calmed. “I don’t know how to do Teshuva”, he complained. “Well”, asked the tzaddik, “how, then, did you know how to sin”. “I didn’t know how to do that either” replied the despondent Jew, I sinned without knowing how, and only afterwards learned that I had sinned”.
“In that case” advised the tzaddik, “I don’t see what the problem is. Do the same now. Do Teshuva without knowing how, and afterward you will realize that you have done Teshuva”.
The same type of behavior that “worked” for us when we were engaged in activities that were not what we were supposed to be involved in, will have to “work” for us as we turn back to the type of conduct that is appropriate for a Jew and a chosid.
And this is the message of Parah Adumah. You made an honest evaluation of your status in avodas Hashem and the results were not flattering? You found yourself lacking, perhaps, in true liveliness that is identical with Torah and mitzvos and G-dliness? Well, the solution is chukas haTorah, a rededication to fulfilling what we were instructed in, in a manner that is not limited by our rationalization and not bound by our reason and sensibilities. Simply stated: do what you know you have to, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense to you or for you and it doesn’t sit well with you.
In the early years of the nesius of the Rebbe, there was a prominent chosid from Eretz Yisroel in yechidus. This chassid was accustomed to the style of Chabad of the 6th generation, and was having difficulty coming to terms with what seemed to be a very different style and approach (uforatzto etc.). During the course of their conversation, the Rebbe said to him “Ir farshteit nisht? Ich farshtei oich nisht, ober azoi azoi iz der inyan” [You don’t really understand? Well, the truth of the matter is that I don’t really understand it either, but this is what has to be done].
As we approach the month of Nissan with everything that it entails, the first step of our preparations is Parshas Parah. The first thing is purifying ourselves from any unclean residue, by “chukas haTorah, – committing ourselves to the service of Hashem in a way that is beyond any rhyme or reason. This, then, brings to Parshas hachodesh, and to actually experience the chodesh hageula, each person individually and all of us together now!
L’chaim! May we do our part to purify ourselves from anything that requires purification, through chukas hatorah, and may the Aibishter in turn do His part to bring about our purification, as He promised וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם with the immediate hisgalus of Melech haMoshiach literally now!!!
Rabbi Akiva Wagner is the Rosh Yeshivah and dean of Yeshivas Lubavitch Toronto. He is known for his brilliant lectures and his passionate farbrengens. As a fiery example of what a chassid ought to be, he serves as a mentor for thousands.