Avraham ben Yaakov
UNDER THE TABLE
& How to get up

Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth

The Last Laugh

This was how the Wise Man dealt with the Prince, until in the end he cured him completely.

“Dressed in strength and splendor, she will laugh to the last day.”

Proverbs 31:25

In the story of the Turkey-Prince, as in a number of his other stories, Rebbe Nachman relates the ending only in the most general terms, without giving any details. The story ends happily: eventually the Prince was cured completely. But what occurred along the way, how long it took, and what happened to the Prince afterwards, we are never told.

We are left wondering. Somehow we are still in the middle of the story. And in fact that is exactly where we are: in the middle. We are all in the middle of the story of our own lives, struggling to lift ourselves up to the spiritual plane and be the Princes and Princesses we yearn to be. We want more than a mere assurance that in the end everything is going to turn out right. How?

The fact is, we have already heard how – in the main body of the story. The way to succeed in life is by thinking positively, looking at the good in ourselves and our lives; by being ambitious, but knowing that great goals are accomplished through taking small steps; by being patient, especially with ourselves, and accepting that “you can be both... and....”

The simple idea that “you can be a Turkey and still take the next challenging, daring step in your life” is the recipe for personal transformation and growth, and the key to success in everything you do. There is only so much that Rebbe Nachman can share with us. The rest is up to us. We have to be wise for ourselves and live these teachings in practice. The greatest wisdom is to do everything simply, like the Wise Man.

There is no end to the levels that can be attained in Avodat HaShem, both along the inner pathway of self-mastery, refinement of character, Torah-study, prayer and devotion, and along the outer path of practical mitzvah-observance, love, kindness and service to others. The goal is nothing less than perfecting the way we live in God's amazing world and achieving complete happiness.

However the only way to achieve any goal is by making a plan and following it patiently, step by step. The word for this is seder, order. You have to put your affairs in order and keep them that way. Order is what eating at the table and living the life of the Prince is all about. Not a regime that stifles, but a self-discipline that enables you to live and enjoy the Torah life to the fullest.

That is why the prayer-book is called the Siddur: the daily prayers and mitzvot are arranged in the necessary order, because this is the only way they work. All successful people are mesudar – organized. Some of the great teachers of Mussar composed a Seder HaYom, “Order of the Day”– listing the spiritual practices one should try to follow each day in order to serve HaShem. (See Rabbi Yitzchok Breiter, A Day in the Life of a Breslover Chassid, and similar works in this genre.) Each person has to develop his own Seder HaYom.

No matter what your goals, you have to establish your priorities and then develop a realistic, viable plan of how you will try to attain them. You must make a general timetable, and then plan out what you are going to do today. Your timetable must be practical. It must suit your personal situation and all your needs and foibles. If you find your plan unworkable in practice, you must think again. Having developed a reasonable plan, now try to follow it step by step.

If what you want is very precious, it is more than likely that problems will arise, whether from the world outside or from within yourself. Still, don't despair. Heave a sigh. Revise your plan. Say a prayer. Now concentrate on taking the next step!

*

“Are not my words like fire, says God, and like a hammer smashing a rock?” (Jeremiah 23:29) – “Just as the sparks fly from the hammer, so a single verse may have many implications” (Sanhedrin 34a). The same could be said of the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, who stated that his fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach. His teachings have a unique generality. They apply to a multitude of individuals and situations. At one and the same time they pertain to the greatest spiritual masters, to average people, and to the very humblest and lowliest.

This entire book has at best reflected only a tiny fraction of the wisdom in the story of the Turkey-Prince. The main angle here has been to look for hints as to how we should deal with ourselves in order to attain our spiritual goals. Obviously the lessons of the story could be applied to any project in life.

A second major dimension of the story – one mostly neglected in this work for reasons of space – is its insights into the factors contributing to success in interpersonal relationships. Another whole book could be written on this subject alone. The Wise Man surely won the Prince's eternal friendship, and he certainly influenced him!

The Wise Man's approach to the Prince should be a model for us all in our relationships with others. The Wise Man was friendly without being imposing. He empathized. He was non-judgmental, positive, patient, and infinitely loving and caring. There are lessons here for parents dealing with their children, teachers with their pupils, counselors, people in everyday domestic and work situations, doctors, psychologists, social workers, and a host of others. How much tragic loss of human talent could be avoided if the Wise Man's approach were to be taken with the handicapped, problem-cases, the emotionally disturbed, juvenile delinquents, and so on.

The story has many other dimensions as well. The stark image of the naked Turkey-Prince is not only a personal symbol. It is an incisive historical and social comment on the exile of the Jewish People as a whole, which has left so many of our brothers and sisters with distorted identities, like the Jews of Egypt – “naked and uncovered” (Ezekiel 16:7): naked of mitzvot. Who is going to take each one by the hand and lovingly bring them back? Where is the Mashiach?

On yet another level, this simple story has cosmic significance. It concerns a father and a son, and one who reconciled them. The Creator is “Father.” The creation is “son” (Zohar II:178b). The Tzaddik brings them back together. So does every one of us with the mitzvot we do. With each mitzvah, we connect ourselves and the world with God, making unity.

In fact, the ramifications of the story are practically endless. It could be used to throw light on many different aspects of Torah, on the prayers, and on various mitzvot. One example would be Shabbat, with the Turkey racing after crumbs and bones symbolizing our weekday activities and outlook, while the Prince sitting up at the table symbolizes Shabbat and the “Extra Soul” with which it clothes us. The story also relates to profound Kabbalistic concepts, such as those of “Tzimtzum,” the “Breaking of the Vessels,” the “clothing” of the Divine Light in Vessels, and the Tikkun through which the Partzufim are brought face to face, etc. (See Tzaddik #476 for some of the Kabbalistic allusions in the concept of Table.)

Rebbe Nachman encouraged us to try to find ourselves in his teachings. Each one of us is entitled to draw a personal message from the story and use it as an aid to spiritual growth in our own individual way.

*

People ask about the ending of the story. They question whether the Prince was ever really cured completely. The original definition of his madness was that “he thought he was a Turkey.” At every step of the cure, the Wise Man told the Prince that he could still be a Turkey and take that step. This was how the Wise Man induced him to get up to the table.

The question is: did the Prince ever finally stop thinking he was a Turkey? It may be that by the end of the story he is “dressed in strength and glory,” wearing all his royal garments, eating the royal food, and sitting at the table with his father. But does he laugh? Does he really cherish being the Prince and enjoy it? Or does he still think he's a bit of a Turkey, even if only very slightly. Do we ever rid ourselves of our Turkey side once and for all?

One answer is that the “Prince” finally becomes himself when the Godly Soul is revealed in all its glory in the World to Come. Life in this world is a test. Up until the very last day there are continuing problems and challenges, both from the outside environment and from within ourselves. Throughout its journey in this under-the-table world, the Godly Soul is always accompanied by its outer kelipah, the Animal Soul – the “Turkey”– which animates our bodies. No matter how high a spiritual level one reaches, in this world the Godly Soul is always somewhat darkened by the Animal Soul and cannot shine in its true radiance.

However, when the Neshamah leaves the body after death, it is cleansed of any remaining stains and can then radiate in the celestial “clothing” of mitzvot prepared in the course of our lives in this world. This is the same idea as in Rabbi Nathan's parable of the king who told his subjects to prepare beautiful garments and avoid getting themselves dirty in order that they should be able to attend the king's banquet and receive precious gifts. (See above pp. 23-4) The banquet and gifts symbolize the reward of the life of the World to Come. “This World is like an ante-chamber before the World to Come: prepare yourself in the ante-chamber so that you can come into the banqueting hall” (Avot 4:21).

“In the World to Come there is no death and no sin and no transgression, but each one rejoices in his wisdom and understanding” (Tanna deVey Eliahu Rabba 2). In the World to Come, the Prince is completely cured and enjoys bliss. But as long as we are in this world, our lives must always be a matter of “running and returning”– having moments of elevation, enthusiasm, Godly inspiration and insight, but then returning to lower, more mundane levels from which we must constantly strive to rise even higher. The Wise Man in our story represents a Tzaddik on the highest of levels. Yet the Wise Man himself says, “I'm also a Turkey.” Even the Tzaddik himself has a Yetzer HaRa.

Once a funeral procession was passing in front of Rebbe Nachman's window. The people in the procession were crying and wailing, but the Rebbe commented, “Presumably the dead man is laughing in his heart. When someone dies, people cry over him as if to say: How good if you had lived in this world even longer and suffered even more trials and torments, and then you would have had even more bitterness. At least this will be the end of his pain and suffering, because once he has gone through anything he might have to go through in Gehenom, he will enjoy the reward for the good he did in this world” (Tzaddik #446).

*

“The dead man is laughing.” Good for him! But what about us in this world? We want to live, not die. The suggestion that the Prince is only finally cured in the World to Come is not entirely satisfying. We want to know if there is a complete cure in this life.

Death is an uncomfortable topic for many people, but coming to terms with the fact of our own mortality is one of the most liberating steps we can take in life. Death is a great mystery. The prospect is awesome, especially when we think about the strange, painful end some endure, and the possibility of punishment after death.

Rebbe Nachman himself said that when he was young he had a terror of death, yet he forced himself to think and pray about it, until eventually he overcame it completely (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #57). Periodically, it can have a very salutary effect to contemplate the inevitability of one's death. It helps one to appreciate the preciousness of this life, and to put one's mundane desires and worries into their proper perspective.

“People have all kinds of fears about other people or objects that in fact cannot harm them at all. The only time a person can think clearly is when he is dead. When he is lying on the ground with his feet to the door [as the corpse is customarily placed immediately after death], he will finally see the truth. He will then realize that all his fears and apprehensions were mere foolishness. They were about nothing. What could a mere mortal do to him? The same is true of his desires and temptations. Lying there dead he will realize that he wasted his days in vain. He will know that his most overwhelming desires were mere foolishness and silliness. For who really forced him?” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #83).

Thinking about death from time to time is a way of shaking ourselves out of our sleep. We tend to put off doing what we know we ought to do. But in fact, conquering our own personal Turkeys and living our lives the way we should is not really so very hard. The Wise Man has shown us how to make it easy. “One grain of intelligence can overcome the world and all its temptations” (ibid. #51). “If you will learn to understand yourself, you can rid yourself of all worldly fears and desires. You must only realize that something else within you is responsible for them. Understand this and you can overcome everything. You have free will. You can easily train your mind to avoid the thing inside you that is responsible for your fears and desires” (ibid.).

It may be unpleasant to contemplate worldly suffering and the possibility of punishment after death, but “the only way to begin serving God is through fear of retribution. Without it, it is impossible to even take the first step. Even the righteous must have such a fear, for few can devote themselves to God merely because they love Him deeply.

“One can also serve God out of a sense of awe, because He is so great and powerful. This is a higher level of fear, but it is difficult to attain. For most people, the path to devotion is the simple fear of punishment... It is man's nature to be drawn to worldly temptations, and this can only be overcome through the fear of punishment. Only then can one begin serving God” (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #5). In other words, we should learn to use our fears of suffering, death and punishment as a stimulus to work on ourselves and achieve higher levels of Godly awareness and service.

The truth is that God has no desire to punish us. God is a loving Father who wants His children to enjoy the greatest good. If God threatens and punishes, it is “as a man chastises his son” (Deuteronomy 8:5). No loving father wants his child to suffer needlessly. “Do I want the death of the wicked person? No, but that he should return from his ways and live” (Ezekiel 18:23). All we have to do is to try to serve God to the best of our ability. “Teshuvah and good deeds are a shield against punishments.” (Avot 4:11).

Rebbe Nachman teaches: “A person who wants to taste the Hidden Light, the secrets of the Torah which will be revealed in the future, must elevate his fear to its root. This is achieved by judgment – secluding oneself in hisbodidus and conversing with God, expressing one's whole heart to God and judging oneself in all the details of one's life. By doing this, one removes all one's mundane fears and elevates one's awe of Heaven.”

The Rebbe explains: “When a person neglects to examine and judge himself, he is examined and brought to judgment from on high. God has many ways of executing His judgments. He has the power to clothe them in anything in the world, because all things are His messengers, and He can use whatever means He chooses to execute His judgments. We can actually see this in the world around us. When something bad happens to a person, the particular cause which precipitates the problem is often quite insignificant. One would never have expected a small thing like this to bring on such a train of consequences – illness, suffering and the like. The explanation is that the Divine decree passed against him has been clothed within these mundane circumstances in order to give him his deserts.

“But when a person examines and judges himself of his own accord, the decree above is removed. There is no need for him to be afraid of anything. Worldly objects and events will no longer be used as a veil and a cloak for executing the decree of God. By bringing himself to a reckoning, he has removed the judgment from above. He is already sufficiently aroused and spiritually awake without needing things of this world to shake him. This is what is meant by elevating fear to its root. He is afraid of nothing except God. Because of this he will be worthy of the Hidden Light” (Likutey Moharan I:15).

Rebbe Nachman conquered his own terror of death by repeatedly praying to God and telling Him he was willing to die to sanctify His Name. Every Jew is required to “love HaShem your God... with your whole soul” (Deuteronomy 6:5 . To love God with your whole soul means to love Him “even if He takes your soul” (Berachot 54a). One's life is the most precious thing one has. Offering it for God is the greatest act of faith there is. It is an act of faith in God as the Giver of life, who has the power to reward one with eternal life. A person who is willing to die for God is certainly willing to live for Him. And once you are not afraid of death, you are not afraid of anything.

In 1943 there was a man in Russia who was worrying about death. He was a Breslover Chassid from Poland, who was now being held in a Stalinist labor camp in northern Siberia. His crime? Being Jewish.

The prison camp was so far from any human habitation that it did not need to have walls around it. No escaping prisoner had a chance of getting anywhere. The ice-cold conditions would certainly kill a would-be fugitive long before he could reach safety. In fact, the prisoners had to guard themselves. Wolves were liable to steal into the prisoners' huts at night and snatch people while they were sleeping. For this reason, each night one of the prisoners had to stay awake to keep watch.

Tonight it was this Breslover Chassid's turn. As he sat outside in the freezing cold, shattered by yet another long day of hard labor, it was a desperate struggle to keep awake. He begged God not to let him go to sleep, because if he went to sleep the wolves would probably kill him, and then he would not have a Jewish burial. “At least let me die like a Jew. Please.”

He prayed and prayed, and then, totally exhausted, he drifted off to sleep... He dreamed that he was back in his native Poland before the war. He was looking into the sweet, smiling face of the teacher who had introduced him to Breslov Chassidut. “Is that how we taught you to pray?” asked his teacher. “ `To die like a Jew'? Pray to live like a Jew!”And, indeed, this Chassid lived to tell the tale many years afterwards.

The purpose of thinking about death is to fire ourselves to live life to the full. Living like a Jew is to “love HaShem your God with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “With all your heart” means “with your two Yetzers, the Yetzer HaTov and the Yetzer HaRa” (Berachot 54a). At the beginning of the spiritual journey, when a person first begins to wake up and see the Turkey side of himself for what it is, the Yetzer HaRa can be experienced as a tough obstacle to God's service. One takes an honest look at oneself and sees how one's sins have distanced one from God, and how one's desires and other traits continue to keep one far away.

But by steadily following the path of Teshuvah through its ups and downs, we are able to elevate evil and transform it into good. We do this through acknowledging our mistakes and changing our way of life. By admitting our sins to God and regretting them, not only do we neutralize their power over us; the sins themselves become the spur to our inner transformation, and thus “the transgressions are turned into virtues” (Yoma 86b). The Yetzer HaRa then ceases to be an obstacle. The Baal Teshuvah may continue to be subjected to Turkey thoughts and impulses, but now his response to them is different: he sees them as a challenge that motivates him to higher and higher spiritual achievement.

The key to Teshuvah is to be completely open and honest with God about all of one's conflicting thoughts, feelings, actions, hopes and aspirations. The Hebrew word for this openness is Vidui. This is often translated as “confession,” a word which for some may have confusing connotations. In fact, Vidui is a fundamental Jewish practice. It is the essence of Teshuvah. (Leviticus 26:40 and see Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1:1.) Vidui means owning up to God over any wrong one has done, and regretting it.

Vidui is thus one aspect of a far greater service to God: acknowledging Him for everything – for one's life, for all the various things one goes through, positive and negative, for one's own actions, good or bad, and for all the different aspects of oneself, holy and unholy. “You shall love God... with all your might(Deuteronomy 6:5). Loving God “with all your might” means: “whatever way God deals with you, acknowledge Him” (Berachot 54a). Through acknowledging God, one recognizes His presence in one's life, and thus becomes connected with Him.

Vidui is therefore related to the Hebrew root meaning to acknowledge, from which the word Hodu, “give thanks,” derives. The Turkey side of us, the Yetzer HaRa, may cause us to do bad, but we can come to serve God with it by means of Vidui and Teshuvah, through which even the worst sins can be turned into merits. Our story touches on this: “Who are you and what are you doing here?”– “I'm a Turkey.”– “So am I!” Honest confession. Through acknowledgement, the Turkey side can be transformed into pure good in the end. Hodu. Acknowledge and give thanks. Hodu la-Shem ki tov – “Give thanks to God, for He is good, for His loving kindness is for ever” (Psalms 118:1). Acknowledge and give thanks even for bad, because ultimately it is for good.

The Hebrew word for Turkey is Tarnegol Hodu – the Hodu Bird. Through Teshuvah and acknowledgement, the Turkey itself turns into Hodu: thank you. “Thank You, God.” Eventually the Prince can be completely cured in this world – through acknowledging and thanking God for everything. This is the future mode – “...to thank and praise His great and blessed Name and to recognize Him. Through this we are attached to Him and near Him. The more you know and recognize God, the closer you are to him” (Likutey Moharan II:2).

The letters of Hodu have the numerical value of 21. This is the same as the Divine Name EKYH, the Holy Name associated with Redemption and Teshuvah, and with the Sefirah of Keter, the Crown – the source of the entire Creation. Through acknowledgement and thanks to God, the Hodu-Bird rises up to Keter and merits the royal Crown. The Prince is cured completely.

The tribe of turkeys have come in for much abuse in the course of this book. But if there's one thing turkeys are good at, it is pecking. Life goes very quickly. The art is to take whatever good thing is available at each passing moment – a prayer, some words of Torah, a mitzvah here, a kind deed there, a little charity, some words of thanks to God... And one final gem of wisdom every turkey knows: it doesn't pay to bite off more than you can chew. Do things bit by bit.

*

BACK TO THE TOP OF THIS PAGE

UNDER THE TABLE CONTENTS

AZAMRA HOMEPAGE

© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5770 - 2009-10 All rights reserved