I’m a story junkie. As a child I was always an avid reader and I haven’t lost my love of sinking my teeth into a good book. Unfortunately today, it’s not as easy to find the spare moments to indulge in my favorite pastime. I therefore have to satisfy myself with tapes and lectures that have great stories on them and the wonderful brief summer vacations to catch up on my story material for the year.
This year was no different. Miles of vacation drive time down to a beautiful Oregon retreat, my favorite storyteller tapes of all time — Reb Shlomo Carlebach —
at my side, kids sleeping in the back, and I was transported to storyteller heaven by the super holy Reb Shlomo: Miraculous rebbes, holy thieves, tales of otherworldly visits, Holocaust heroism. J.K. Rowling and the scar-inflicted Harry Potter have got nothing on a good Chassidic rebbe tale.
Perhaps the reason I found these stories so meaningful, poignant and inspirational are because they are about real people that I’m familiar with. I have studied many of these great sages’ works, where their piety and erudition are most readily reflected. Sure, any good Chassidic tale always has a certain difficult un-believability factor to it. But as my rebbe used to say, “they ain’t telling ’em about me and you.”
Perhaps one of the most overwhelming themes of these stories is the incredible faith and miracles performed on behalf of those of with less-than-perfect faith. Yet, because of their supreme sincerity in certain areas, they are granted the heavenly merit that brings them the salvation and blessing they seek. In truth, I think many of us today would love, at times, to disappear to a magical world where all our problems can go away and our nervousness, anxieties, worries and even daily challenges and fears would all dissipate. One thing I have learned being a rabbi for many years is that nobody has it easy. Or as my mom would say, “everyone’s got their pekel” — everyone’s got their package.
Is there a magical world? The Torah portion we read this time of year discusses the concept. In Deuteronomy, chapter 18: 9-15, God tells us in no uncertain terms that we should never consider utilizing any of the services of any Potter-like diviners:
There should not be found among you one who passes their children through fire, one who practices divination, an astrologer, an omen reader, sorcerer, animal charmer, Ov or Yidoni witches, or séance holders. For anyone who does this is an abomination of Hashem, and because of these abominations Hashem, your God, banishes [the nations] from before you. Tamim tiyeh im Hashem Elokekecha — You shall be wholehearted/complete with Hashem, your God. For these nations whom you are conquering, they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you, Hashem, your God
has not given you so.
The early commentators debate the reasons for this prohibition. Maimonides writes that there was nothing to these frauds — there is no reality to these magical sorcerers. Yet the majority of commentaries see in the Torah’s harsh prohibition that God was mandating us not to just avoid scam artists, but that there are, or at least were, such powers.
Just as God created the potential for prophesy and to have communication with the Divine, in the era of that spiritual power and closeness there was the power to distort, utilizing that energy of the spiritual world for evil and as a tool to distance oneself from God.
The Holy Ohr Hachaim, an 18th-century Kabbalist and scholar, sees in this verse an even more powerful idea: Reading the verse more homiletically — Tamim Yihyeh — complete you will be — im Hashem Elokecha — when you are with Hashem your God. We don’t need magic. Our troubles and pekelach are not mere happenstance. That which we seek most, a sense of completeness and fulfillment, can be found in only one place: Im Hashem Elokecha — with our loving Father in heaven.
It is that power of faith and connection to our Creator that is at the heart of my favorite Chassidish stories. More often than not in these tales, it doesn’t take the most erudite or learned person to achieve that level of faith. One doesn’t even have to be the most God-fearing. What it takes is a true sense and understanding that all comes from Him. All is good from Him. And oyyy gevalt (as Reb Shlomo would say) do we need his help, do we need his love.
This Shabbos is the first of the month of Elul. We enter the High Holiday preparatory month. Historically, this is a momentous occasion for we are told it is at this time that Moshe went back up the mountain to bring the ultimate forgiveness for our nation’s first big betrayal of the Golden Calf. It is also a month, our sages have taught us, when Hashem is closest to us. The King is coming to town and is out in the fields waiting for us to join Him. The conclusion of this story will take place after Sukkot and Simchat Torah, an ending that is happily ever after.
Yet our story begins now with this month. May our books be inscribed with life as we begin the preparation for the upcoming Holy Days.