Avraham ben Yaakov
Jewish Pathways of Spiritual Growth
The Wise Man and His Cure
Humility * Faith * Finding the Good * Patience * Simplicity * Breaking the Whole into Small Parts * Time * The Wise One Within Us
None of the doctors could do anything to help him or cure him, and they gave up in despair. The king was very sad. Until a Wise Man came and said, "I can cure him."
The world has no lack of "doctors." Philosophers, therapists, gurus, syndicated columnists, workshop-instructors, the authors of self-help manuals, and many, many others, all have plenty of advice for us, free or otherwise, as to what we should do about our problems. What is the path to happiness?
Any "solution" that does not help us recover our connection with God through the Torah and mitzvot can never bring genuine healing and joy. "The Holy One created the Yetzer HaRa, the Evil Urge, and He created the Torah as a spice to temper it" (Bava Batra 16b). Only through Torah can there be any cure for the Jewish soul.
The Torah is the cure, but the question is: how can we bring ourselves to practice the Torah the way we should?
The literature of Mussar and Chassidut is rich in guidance about Teshuvah, the path of "return" to God. But the pathway itself can be daunting. The ideals of Ahavah, love, and Yir'ah, awe of God, are so exalted that we may well wonder how people like ourselves can ever hope to approach them. When we read of the great damage caused by minor transgressions, we may take a single, sweeping look at ourselves and our past lives, and fall into despair. How can we ever rectify the damage we have done, most of all to ourselves? How can we ever cleanse ourselves, let alone turn ourselves into the noble saints Mussar tells us to become?
Despair is the worst kelipah of all. It is like a black hole that swallows every positive thought or feeling, locking people into prisons of negativity and self-rejection, and driving them to recklessness and self-destruction.
"The king was very sad." God grieves over our despair, not our failures. This world was set up to make it easy to fall down. All around us are distractions and temptations; inside us is a "madman"- the Yetzer HaRa - ready to jump out at every turn. Is it any wonder if we keep falling down? But "the Holy One does not come against His creatures angrily and critically" (Avodah Zarah 3a). When the Rabbis said that "Teshuvah is great - it preceded the creation of the World" (Midrash Rabbah 1:5), they meant that the possibility of climbing out of sin and failure was built into the very plan of creation. Besides the pitfalls in this world, God, in His boundless compassion, also created everything we need to get back up. If we despair, we are pulling a black cloak over God's very goodness itself.
Does God really grieve? The purpose of the creation was for our benefit, not His - that we should lift ourselves up and actualize our spiritual potential of our own free will, in order to earn a share of God's goodness. If we fail, what does God lose? Is God "sad" the way a human being might be? Surely on God's supreme level - "in His place..."- all is "...splendor and delight" (I Chronicles 16:27).
Actually God cherishes each one of us more than we can know, more than the most loving parent cherishes a little child. It is our despair that keeps us from God. Despair is a denial that God loves us, preventing us from embarking on the path that is the greatest expression of His love: Teshuvah. Then God's ultimate purpose in the creation - the revelation of His compassion and kindness - is thwarted. Yes, God grieves over this, but in a way that is beyond human understanding. "In secrecy, My Soul weeps" (Jeremiah 13:17).
In his parable about the king who invited his subjects to a banquet (above pp. 23-4), Rabbi Nathan tells us how the king warned his subjects to keep away from anything that might possibly make them dirty. But he also told them what they could do if they slipped up by mistake: he provided the most wonderful fountains which had the power to cleanse and purify even those who had got themselves extremely dirty.
The fountains are the clear, sweet waters of the Torah of Teshuvah - the Torah of compassion that guides us even if we have strayed from the mitzvot and fallen into the worst kelipot. How can we get up? How can we clean off the dirt? How can we get back to our true selves? Where can we find these sweet, soul-reviving waters?
"The king was very sad." Imagine the father in his innermost private chamber, broken and distraught, crying the cry of the heart. "Please God, please help!"
And what will the parent not give to have back the lost child? "I'll give anything, pay anything, just heal my precious child!"
When everything seems black and you feel completely helpless, call out to God in your own words. Whisper. Cry out in your heart, even without words. Ask God to help you and give you what you need.
And give charity. Take even a small coin and put it aside to give to someone in need at the first opportunity. In teaching us to give charity to the poor, the Torah has an unusual turn of phrase. "Open open your hand..." (Deuteronomy 15:8). The Hebrew root meaning "open" appears twice in succession in the same verse. When we open our hand, it causes something else to open as well. The act of charity opens a channel of love into the creation, causing the gate that has been closed to us to open up, providing us with an exit from our darkness. (See Likutey Moharan II:4,2.)
The sweet, cleansing waters are the teachings of the true Wise Men, the outstanding Torah guides - human beings who actually embody the wisdom of the Torah in their lives. Through their teachings, and by their personal example, they show us how we can embody it in our lives.
The true Wise Men's ability to connect with us comes from the fact that despite all their spiritual achievements, they are not angels but real human beings, just like us. They too have had to face the challenges of the human condition, only they succeeded in mastering themselves. They know exactly what we face and can therefore show us the best way to overcome our challenges.
"This can be understood by thinking of an amusement maze of the kind found in the stately homes of the aristocracy. Tall hedges are planted to make up a series of walls, between which run a medley of complicated, seemingly identical paths. The object of the game is to reach a tower standing in the middle. Some of the paths lead directly to the tower, but others are deceptive and take you away from it. However when you are actually walking on any given path, it is impossible to determine if it is the right or the wrong one. All the paths look the same. The only way you can know is if you have already found your way through the maze successfully and reached the tower.
"Someone standing on the tower is in a position to see all the pathways and knows which are right and which are wrong. He can tell the people down in the maze exactly which way they should go. Those who are willing to believe him will get to the right destination. But someone who refuses to believe him and insists on following his own eyes will undoubtedly stay lost and never get to the tower" (Mesilat Yesharim Ch. 3).
Who is the Wise Man? Through the entire story of the Turkey-Prince, Rebbe Nachman does not characterize him at all. He simply tells us what he did. We may be curious to know more about the Wise Man - and certainly we need to be able to identify him, so as to know to whom we should go to learn the compassionate Torah of Teshuvah. However, the private personality of the Wise Man is of little significance to us. What is important is what he is coming to teach us. This we learn from examining what he actually does - the practical steps he takes to cure the Prince.
Many lessons can be gleaned from his every word and move. Some of these lessons we will explore in the chapters to come. Right now, let us consider some of the more general features of the Wise Man's approach.
In a sense, the Wise Man doesn't have a personality. He seems to show up out of nowhere. He puts aside his own clothes of splendor, sacrificing his dignity in order to lower himself to the very place where the Prince is. Even when the Prince asks him who he is, he side-steps the question.
The Wise Man is the model of self-effacement. The foundation of his wisdom is humility. "Wisdom comes out of AYiN, nothingness" (Job 28:12). Obviously this does not mean that wisdom comes from sitting around idly doing nothing. It comes to teach us that in order to open ourselves to genuine wisdom, we have to quieten the lower self that is constantly pushing itself forward, saying "ANiY"- "I... me... my...."We have to turn ANiY into AYiN - nothingness.
People have all kinds of ideas and theories of their own, but real wisdom begins with the admission that we ourselves ultimately know nothing. We can never be certain whether or not we are right in what we think. God alone knows the truth. God alone knows what is really good for us. It follows that God's Wisdom - the Torah - is the only certain guide in life. To solve our
Life is so rich in opportunities of every kind, especially for spiritual growth and deepening our connection with God. However, much of the time we simply do not see these opportunities because our existing involvements and preconceptions stand in the way. Rather than always trying to force reality to fit into a rigid framework of existing views and opinions, learn to avoid hasty conclusions about people and circumstances and listen for the messages life is trying to give you.
The Wise Man comes along and boldly announces: "I can cure the Prince." What makes him so confident? All the other doctors had tried and failed. How can he be so optimistic?
The Wise Man's optimism is an off-shoot of his humility. When he says "I can cure him," he does not mean this in the egotistical sense of "through my strength and the power of my hands" (Deuteronomy 8:17). The Wise Man knows that no matter what he himself may do, everything depends upon God. When the Wise Man says "I," it is as one who is always seeking to efface his own ego and give himself and all his faculties to God's service. Any power he possesses is the power of the Torah, which is God's supreme wisdom. The Wise Man has complete faith in God and the Torah. This is what gives him his confidence.
Indeed, God is completely dependable. God wants good. And God has the power to do anything. God wants the Prince - the soul - cured, and God has a way to make even what seems impossible possible. "Even when things seem to be at their worst, there is a way that the situation can turn around to one's full advantage" (Rebbe Nachman).
We too must believe that no matter what condition we may have fallen to, God's real desire is that we should reach our complete fulfillment. We must have faith that God has the power to bring us to it even with our many flaws and weaknesses, even if until now we may have failed time after time. We must have faith in the power of the Torah, and trust that by following its pathways we will come to true goodness and happiness.
Finding the Good
How many doctors and psychiatrists look over at their patients from their high places and chillingly invite them to "tell me about your problems." Not so the Wise Man. In his humility, he takes himself right down to where the Prince is, there under the table. The Wise Man will only be able to cure the Prince when he can evoke a response from his buried inner self. To do this, the Wise Man must first get to the truth of the Prince's situation. The Wise Man does not spin lofty theories about it. He projects himself directly into it, empathizing with the Prince in every way he can. The Wise Man removes his own "clothes"- his preconceptions and prejudgments - sits down next to the Prince, and starts getting to know him.
The honest search for truth is the key to redemption. It is no good living with illusions about ourselves. In order to achieve anything in life, we have to be realistic. One of the most important things we can learn from the Wise Man is how to be truthful. If the Wise Man had looked at nothing but the pathetic external appearance of the naked Prince, squealing like a
We need this same faith when we look at ourselves. We may see much that we do not like, but we must also search for the underlying good within us. We must be honest with ourselves about ourselves, but the truth does not have to hurt. Humility does not mean you have to eye yourself scathingly, condemning yourself and everything you do as worthless. True humility is to acknowledge your real worth and know that it is God's gift to you. God created everything, and God is good. Therefore good is to be found everywhere and in every person. No one is ever so far gone as to be beyond redemption.
Similarly, when thinking about the various problems you face, remember that they must have good in them somewhere. God has the power to turn everything around to your advantage. While it is foolish to minimize genuine difficulties, you should try to search for the positive factors as well. If things go against you, or your efforts seem to be frustrated, don't be discouraged. If what you want is God's will, failure is only a preparation for success: take it as a sign that you should make greater efforts. And if, after all your efforts, you still do not succeed, have faith that whatever God wants will ultimately be for the best.
The Wise Man's faith in God gives him one of the most important qualities he needs to cure the Prince: patience. Since he is sure God is good and constantly helping, the Wise Man does not insist on having things exactly the way he might want them to be. He is content to accept things the way God wants them to be.
Right now the Prince is thinking and acting like a
People often feel that if they cannot achieve everything they want, it is not worth trying to achieve anything. This is a mistake. Things do not have to be "all or nothing." The Wise Man is prepared to live with imperfection even while striving to make progress. Things can be "both... and...""You can wear a shirt and still be a
Rebbe Nachman does not waste a single word in telling this story, so it is noteworthy that he repeats this idea three times. It is one of the most important lessons of the whole story.
When you want to change yourself in any way, be realistic about what you are capable of right now and what is presently beyond you. Be patient with yourself and go steadily. You may be very ambitious, but it is impossible to transform yourself all in one step. If you undertake a heavier load than you can manage, you may end up accomplishing nothing. If you try to change too many things in your life at once, you may not be able to cope with all the changes, and risk ending up worse off than when you started. To make genuine progress, be content to take modest, steady steps, one after the other. This is the way to make solid gains and build up your strength.
As you try to change, you are likely to see aspects of "the old you" surfacing repeatedly. Don't let this discourage you. Carry on with your work in the areas you have decided to concentrate on for the time being. Rather than allow yourself to be depressed because some of what you want to shed still clings to you, take delight in the new, better you that is emerging.
All the other doctors had failed. Perhaps some of them had been willing to compromise and settle for less than a complete recovery for the Prince. Even so, none of them had been able to do anything for him. The Wise Man, on the other hand, wanted nothing less than perfection. He was determined to cure the Prince completely. Despite his patience and willingness to accept slow, gradual improvement, the Wise Man was the most ambitious of all. How did he succeed?
Essentially, through simplicity. Simplicity is another facet of humility. One admits one's limitations, and instead of attempting things that are too difficult, one only ever tries to take simple steps. Said Rebbe Nachman: "The greatest art of all is to be simple" (Likutey Moharan II:44). The point is brought out in another of his stories.
"There was a certain king who sent his son to distant places to study. Eventually the son returned to the king's palace, fully versed in all the arts and sciences. One day the king gave his son instructions to take a particular stone which was as big as a millstone and carry it up to the top floor of the palace. Needless to say, the stone was so big and heavy, the prince couldn't shift it in the slightest. He was very depressed.
"Eventually the king said to his son, `Did you really imagine I would tell you to do the impossible? Would I tell you to try to carry this stone up just as it is? Even with all your learning, how could you do it? What you should do is take a hammer and smash the stone into little pieces. This way you will be able to bring them up one by one and so get the whole stone up to the top floor'" (Tzaddik #441).
Breaking the Whole into Small Parts
Sometimes our personalities are like a heavy stone. We are asked to lift up our hearts and bring Godly awareness into every aspect of our being. "Know this day and take to your heart that HaShem is the only God in heaven above and on the earth below" (Deuteronomy 4:39). But the heart is a "heart of stone" (Ezekiel 36:26). The only way to lift up the heart is by taking a hammer, as it were, and breaking our major goals, ambitions and projects into small, practicable tasks.
The Wise Man wanted to cure the Turkey-Prince completely. His ultimate goal was perfection. But when he contemplated his goal he said to himself, "That's impossible to achieve all at once. It involves so much, it's overwhelming. I am unable to do hard, complicated things. I can only do simple, easy things. I have to break the long-term goal into small, manageable steps."
The Wise Man analyzes the ultimate goal into its component sub- and sub-sub-goals, and works out an order of priorities. What will it mean for the Prince to be cured? He must behave normally, sitting up at the table. To sit up at the table will involve eating the royal food and wearing his royal clothes.
The first goal, then, is to get the Prince to put his clothes on. But that's still too complicated. You'll never get him to put on all his clothes in one go. This sub-goal must also be divided into its component parts. The Prince has to put on his shirt, his trousers, his socks, his shoes... The Wise Man breaks everything down into simple, manageable, steps, which he then proceeds to take one by one. "He put on a shirt."
True, you must be patient and wait when necessary. But when the time is ripe you have to act. People often sit doing nothing because the task they face seems so forbidding. Simplify larger goals into a series of small, easy steps. What is the next step? Go ahead and take it.
To cure the Prince, the Wise Man stopped everything else he may have been doing and made the necessary time. Not that he wasted time. When the moment came for him to act - to put on the shirt and the trousers, or eat the royal food - he went in like an arrow and did what he had to do. But one of the most important parts of the whole cure was to get to know the Prince intimately and establish a good working relationship with him. This could only be achieved by sitting with him patiently for lengthy periods without being in any hurry to get up.
No matter what you want to accomplish in life - whether a specific task or the ultimate goal of finding fulfillment and happiness - you must give it time. Not only the time required to take whatever practical steps may be necessary. Even more important is the time you invest working out which steps to take and how you are going to achieve what you want.
People have all kinds of ideas about things they would like to achieve, ranging from simple, everyday goals to grandiose, far-reaching ambitions. Many of our ideas are completely unrealistic - and we may know it. They are fantasies which will never materialize: they never leave the realm of thought. Others may be practicable. Potentially they could be realized. We may even want to realize them very much, or think we do. Yet for some reason we never succeed. They never become actual. Sometimes it doesn't matter. Ideas are free! They can be fun! But what if the goals are important?
Success means making the transition from potential to actual. The goal starts off as an idea. It may be clear or vague. To make it actual, the idea has to be developed and acted on. What is the key to success?
Many of the things we do in our lives are quite routine: we don't need to think too much about them. Other things require a more conscious effort. This is especially the case if we want to change something - whether in ourselves or in the outside world - or create something new. The more ambitious the goal, the more likely it will require a conscious effort.
Just wanting to succeed is not enough. Wishing for something will not bring it about. What is the difference between wishing and willing? There is no magic about willpower. Some people manage to get things done. It is not that they have some mysterious power of wanting which automatically makes their goals come about. They work. But hard work alone is not sufficient. In order for our efforts to succeed, they have to be properly attuned to the goal we are aiming for. We have to be clear what our goal really is. Time, energy and other resources are all limited. To achieve one goal may necessitate giving up others. We may have to moderate some of our desires and ambitions. Having decided on the goal, we then have to take account of all the relevant circumstances, and work out exactly what we will have to do, step by step, in order to accomplish it. All this requires careful thought and planning. And this takes time. Taking the time to do this will only save you time in the long run.
Time is precious. We all know that. Time is life. We all have to die, and our time in this life is limited. We want to make the most of it. In fact, we may want to get so much out of it that we feel we are too busy to be able to stop for a moment to think about how we're using our time. The result? How often do we get ourselves into situations which cause us the most colossal wastes of time, leaving us frustrated and disappointed? Sometimes a real crisis develops, finally forcing us to try to work things out. Only by then it could be too late. Nobody knows how long he will be healthy or when he will die. Why wait? Time is more precious than money. Time is love. All the good ideas in the world will not help you unless you take the time to put them into practice. Giving yourself time - to work out your goals, analyze what's holding you back, decide how to overcome the obstacles and achieve what you want - is the greatest love you can show yourself.
The Wise One Within Us
In the story, the Wise Man and the Turkey-Prince are two separate characters. However it is also possible to see them as symbolic of two separate facets of ourselves. We may be Princes or Princesses with our own
To reach our true fulfillment, we need to strengthen this Wise One within us. We do this by studying the teachings of the outstanding Torah guides at every opportunity, and asking seriously how they apply to us and how we can put them into practice.
"With intelligence," said Rebbe Nachman, "you can stand up to all human weaknesses... Everyone has the potential of wisdom. All that is necessary is to actualize it... You may have succumbed to desire and sinned in many ways. You may have damaged your intellect, making it confused and weak, but you still have some intelligence, and with this alone you can overcome all human weaknesses. One grain of intelligence can overcome the world and all its temptations" (Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #51).
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