The Jewish Parrot
After his wife died, an old Jew received a parrot from his sons to keep him company. After a time, he discovered that the parrot had heard him pray so often that it learned to say the prayers. The old man was so thrilled he decided to take his parrot to the synagogue on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah.
The rabbi protested when he entered with the bird, but when told the parrot could "daven" (pray), the rabbi, though still skeptical, showed interest. People started betting on whether the parrot would pray, and the old man happily took bets that eventually totaled $50,000.
The prayers began but the bird was silent. As the prayers continued there was still not a word from the bird.
When the prayers ended, the old man was not only crestfallen but also $50,000 in debt. On the way home he thundered at his parrot: "Why did you do this to me? I know you can pray, you know you can pray. Why did you keep your mouth shut? Do you know how much money I owe people now?"
To which the parrot replied: "A little business imagination would help you, dear friend. You must look ahead: Can you imagine what the stakes will be like on Yom Kippur?"
This week's Torah portion (Mishpatim), which deals primarily with civil and tort law, presents the following law (1): If a man shall give money or vessels to his fellow to safeguard, and it is stolen from the house of the man, if the thief is found, he shall pay double."
Simply put, the Torah is stating here the law that a thief need not only compensate the victim for the loss; he is also given a penalty, and is obligated needs to pay double the sum which he took. Yet, a well known axiom in Jewish thought is that every single passage in the Torah contains, in addition to its literal meaning, a psychological and spiritual interpretation. The physical and concrete dimension of a mitzvah may not always be practically relevant, yet its metaphysical message remains timelessly relevant in our inner hearts and psyches.
What is the psychological interpretation of the above law?
The Human Custodian
"If a man shall give money or vessels to his fellow to safeguard," can be understood as a metaphor for the Creator of life entrusting man with "money and vessels to safeguard." G-d grants each of us a body, a mind, a soul, a family and a little fraction of His world's resources. He asks us to nurture them and protect them from a myriad of inner and outer forces that threaten to undermine them.
Yet, each of us also possesses an inner thief who schemes to steal these gifts and use them according to his own will. This "thief" represents the "destructive inclination " — yatzer hara, in Talmudic jargon — that exists within the human psyche and constantly seeks to control his or her body, soul and life by abusing their identity, violating their integrity and derailing them from their appropriate course of action.
For example, when a powerful instinctive craving compels me to eat something destructive for my body or spirit, my inner "thief" — or destructive craving — has just "kidnapped" part of my existence and harmed it. Similarly, when I lie for short-term convenience, my inner "thief," once again, has entered and robbed my "lips" and "words," employing them for an immoral function, thereby degrading my conscience and soul. When I cheat in a business deal, my inner "thief" managed to get his hands on my business, and so forth.
Apathy and Guilt
There may be those few individual saints who never fail to safeguard their sacred space. Yet most of us are subjected to frequent visitations by this little thief who conquers chunks of our lives. How do we deal with it?
Some people ultimately feel that their battles against their inner thief are, in the end, destined for failure. They give up the fight, allowing the thief take whatever he wants, whenever he wants. They develop a certain lightheadedness and cynicism toward living a life of dignity and depth.
Others, at the other extreme, become deeply dejected and melancholy. Their failures instill within them feelings of self-loathing as they wallow in guilt and despair.
Judaism has rejected both of these notions, since both lead the human being into the abyss, one through carelessness and the other through depression (2).
The Majesty of Returning
The Torah, in the above law, offers instead this piece of advice:
"If a man shall give money or vessels to his fellow to safeguard, and it is stolen from the house of the man, if the thief is found, he shall pay double." Go out, suggests the Torah, and find the thief. Then you will actually receive double of what you possessed originally!
Here we are introduced to, in subtle fashion, the exquisite dynamic known in Judaism as teshuvah, or psychological and moral returning. Instead of wallowing in your guilt and despair, and instead of surrendering to apathy and cynicism, you ought to identify and confront your "thief," those forces within your life that keep derailing you. You need to reclaim ownership over your schedules, behaviors and patterns.
Then you will receive from the thief double the amount he took in the first place. What this means psychologically is that the experience of falling and rebounding will allow you to deepen your spirituality and dignity in a fashion double of what it might have been without the thievery.
The Talmud (3) puts it thus: "Great is repentance, for as a result of it, willful sins are transformed into virtues."
When you, sadly, fail, and allow your life to go to shambles, but then confront the thief and reclaim your life as your own, those previous failures bestow upon you a perspective, an appreciation, a depth and a determination that otherwise would not have been possible. By engaging in the remarkable endeavor of teshuvah, the sin itself is redefined as a mitzvah. Why? Because the very failure and its resulted frustration generate a profound and authentic passion and appreciation for the good and the holy (4)."
The next time your inner thief hijacks your moral life, see it as a reclamation opportunity: Reclaim your life with a double dose of light and purity (5).
1) Exodus 22:6.
2) See Tanya beginning of Chap. 1 about the danger of both of these paths. Cf. Tanya end of chapter 36.
3) Yuma 86b.
4) Tanya chapter 7.
5) This essay is based on Sefas Emes Parshas Mishpatim, in the discourses of the year 5635, or 1875. The Sefas Emes, a Chassidic work on the Pentateuch, was authored by the second master of the Chassidic dynasty of Gur, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847-1905). See there for the spiritual explanation behind the following verse: "If the thief is not found, then the householder shall approach the court that he had not laid his hand upon his fellow's property." (In other words, if the custodian (who is unpaid) claims that he is not responsible for the loss of the object, since it was stolen, he must come to court to swear that he has not made unauthorized personal use of the item.)
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.