“I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn'tno use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double… deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie.” (Huckleberry Finn)
This week’s teaching of the Besht begins with the mashal of the prince taken captive. I have attached the three sources below, (loosely) translated two of them, and added some reflections along the way. Huck Finn makes his appearance at the end.
In a famous mashal, the Besht tells the story of a king’s son taken captive:
Once a king sent away his son. Or perhaps the son was taken captive. In either case, he was taken far away from his father. Over time, living among peasants, the prince forgot that he was the son of the king, and even when his father sent for him he refused to return… (source 1 below)
The Gemara speaks of the yetzer hara as a רוח שטות. When we make a mistake and kick ourselves “for having been so stupid”, we are referring to רוח שטות.The assumption being that we know what is right and if we just had more discipline and kept our head on straight, we could have identified and avoided the שטות. The Messilat Yesharim, Judaism’s ultimate book of mussar, begins with the promise, I am not here to teach you new things, but to remind you of what you already know to be true.
With his mashal, however, the Besht rewrites that paradigm. The prince really is a prince. And as such, his believing he is a peasant is שטות. But in this mashal, our struggles with sin are not merely temporary insanity or a passing foolishness. They come of a genuine struggle for clarity about who we are and what we believe to be true. Believing one is a peasant isn’t generally resolved by a simple message from the King.
The Besht ends the mashal with the prince returning home.
The prince refused every minister whom the king sent to bring his son home. Until a wise man dressed up in the manner of the boy, adopted his customs, and became his friend. Over time the wise man brought the young man to realize just how much of a prince he was. And then the boy came home.
Clearly the Besht believes that it is possible to rediscover that one is a prince. It just is not a simple process. And it may be impossible to get there without some help.
With a wink, R Shlomo Carlebach takes the mashal to its extreme. He used to tell of visiting American college campuses:
I would ask students what religion they were. When someone responded, “I have no religion, I am just a human being, and consider myself a citizen of the world,” I would smile, offer a hug and say, “Hey, I am Jewish too”.
In Shlomo’s version of the mashal, confusion itself becomes the defining characteristic of a Jew in exile. You are confused? Welcome home, brother.
The Toldot, however, tells a different version of the mashal of the king’s son taken captive, and provides a clue for how a prince can transcend captivity.
Once the son of a King was taken captive and smuggled to a far away land. One day a letter reached him from his father, reminding him never to forget who he was, nor the ways of Royalty, even as he lived among peasants. The young man was overjoyed to see his father’s handwriting and to read that he hadn’t been forgotten at home, and he wanted to share his joy. But the letter must be kept a secret, and in any case who among peasants could understand his joy. So he went to the local pub and bought round after round of vodka for the peasants. When they were full of drink and began to dance, he joined them and they danced together. They were happy in their pleasure, and he was happy in his. This mashal refers to Shabbat. The peasants represent the physical, and the Prince the soul (source 2 below, explained further in source 3)
In this version the King’s letter is enough to remind the son of whom he is. Once he reads it, the prince is no longer confused. He is just lonely. He goes to the bar to dance; dancing with drunk peasants has its drawbacks, but it’s better than dancing alone.
The complexity begins with the Toldot’s explanation of the mashal. In the first mashal, the captive prince represents me. But in this mashal the prince and my “self” are clearly two different things. The prince is my soul, my life force, that in me who connects me to G-d, but it is not exactly “me”. If anything, “I” am the whole scene –the prince together with the peasants.
In the mashal, Shabbat both agitates the conflict within us, and provides a means to resolve it.
On the one hand, Shabbat awakens a promise and taste of home. It reminds the soul that there is more to life than a physical world that it rarely understands or enjoys. The soul, whom the midrash teaches us wonders why it was sent to such a difficult place to begin with, receives a letter from his father and is comforted with the knowledge that there is something beyond, there is a purpose, and there is holiness that transcends our physical experiences. But for that very reason, Shabbat raises expectations, and those expectations exacerbate the soul’s tension with the rest of the self.
The soul is agitated in its loneliness. He is trapped. He wants an opportunity to celebrate his memory of what was, his yearning for what could be, and his joy in the knowledge of what lies beyond the village. But, ironically, in order to feel joy, he needs the very peasants who are holding him captive.
And so Shabbat brings about resolution as well. Shabbat commands עונג. On shabbat a person’s joy becomes a vehicle, an opportunity for the inner joy of his soul.
The Besht is encouraging us to experience the joy of Shabbat. Like a peasant at first. But then to allow the experience of עונג to point beyond itself, and to know, maybe even to experience that that pleasure is awakening a much more profound joy within our soul. He encourages us to celebrate our joys in such a way that enables the soul to dance through us.
I tried reading Huckleberry Finn to my younger kids earlier this year. Huck’s Southern accent confused their Israeli ears, and so they lost interest within a week or two. But I was hooked, and this past motzei Shabbat the bus home from Nishmat’s tiyul shnati, I finally finished the book.
In case you haven’t read it recently, the novel tells the story of two runaways, the orphan Huckleberry Finn, and Jim, a runaway slave, as they raft their way down the Mississipi. The book has flashes of the humor of Tom Sawyer, but while Tom’s capers are just impish fun, Huck’s are always a struggle with life and with death. Somehow, even in the funniest scenes, everything is at stake.
In one of the last great scenes, Huck tries to turn Jim in. At other times along the journey Huck risks his life for his partner, but at others he simply is incapable of thinking out of the box of the American South. Freeing a slave is wrong. It is stealing. And so Huck tries to do the right thing and return Jim, the person he loves most in the world, to his “rightful owner” who ain’tnever done me harm. But as hard as he tries to do what he believes is the right thing, Huck can’t, and he feels he has failed.
“I about made up my mind to pray, and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn'tno use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from ME, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting ON to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth SAY I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write [Jim’s] owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie–I found that out.”
Huck has long accepted his confusion and contradictions. In the language of the Besht’s mashal, he knows he is a mix of prince and peasant. What makes him so special in my eyes, though, is his faith that prayer can help him sort it out. You can’t pray a lie.
Of course, Huck has it all upside-down; it’s the prince in him who wants to free Jim, not the peasant. And it seems like such a shame that just at the moment that prayer points him to some clarity, he abandons it.
I sometimes long for Huck’s clarity, to know that I can’t pray lies. At least when I pray, I would like to know that I am honest, and wish that my tefillot will help me figure out who is the prince and who is the peasant.
שמעתי משל ממורי למלך ששלח בנו ידידו למרחקים כדי שיהי' לו אח"כ יותר תענוג, וברבות הימים נשכח מבן המלך כל תענוגי המלך, ושלח אחריו ולא רצה לחזור לאביו, וכל מה ששלח המלך יותר שרים חשובים אחריו לא הועילו כלום. עד שהי' שר אחד חכם, שכסות ולשון שינה כדמות הבן ההוא, ונתקרב אליו במדריגתו והשיבו אל אביו, ודפח"ח.
פו. משל למלך שנשבה בנו יחידו בשבי דקשה מכולם, ועברו זמני זמנים בתוחלת נמשכה מלפדותו ולהשיבו אל אביו, וברוב עיתים ושנים הגיעוהו מכתב מאביו המלך לבל יתיאש שם, ולא ישכח נימוסי המלכות בין זאבי ערב, כי עוד ידו נטויה להחזירו לביתו אל בית אביו על ידי כמה וכמה טצדקות במלחמה או בשלום וכו', ומיד שמח בן המלך שמחה גדולה, אפס שהיתה מגילת סתרים ואי אפשר היה לשמוח בגלוי, מה עשה, הלך עם בני עירו אל בית היין או שאר דבר המשכר, והם שמחו ביין שמחה גשמית והוא שמח באגרת אביו וכו', וככל החזון הזה הוא ממש מצות עונג שבת, אל הגוף שהוא החומר, במאכל ומשתה, כדי שיהיה פנאי להצדיק לשמוח שמחה שניה שהוא שמחת הנשמה בדביקות ה' יתברך כל היום, לבל יסיח דעתו מקדושת ומורא השבת, קל וחומר מתפילין וכו': (תולדות יעקב יוסף ריש פרשת קדושים)
עצבות וקליפות החומר מעכב שמחת הנשמה בעשיית המצוה, לכך עצה יעוצה ושבתה הארץ שבת לה' (ויקרא כ"ה, ב'), הכוונה שיעשה נייחא ושביתה לארץ שהוא החומר והגוף, לשמוח בשמחה מגשמי, ועל ידי זה תוכל הנשמה לשמוח ברוחני, וזהו שבת לה', כי שתי בחינות אלו צריך לעשותן בשבת, כמו ששמעתי ממורי זלה"ה ביאור פסוק ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת, והבן: (תולדות יעקב יוסף פרשת בהר דף קי"ט ע"ד
שיעורים נוספים ניתן למצוא בקטגוריות הבאות: חסידות
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