Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Poor Man and the Astrologer

The Poor Man and the Astrologer
From Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender's
Siach Sarfei Kodesh
Translated by Dovid Sears

This story reflects Rebbe Nachman's emphasis on bechirah, or freedom of choice. Although divine providence vs. human free will must remain a paradox, as he states in Likutey Moharan I, 21, in the existential situation, free will is quite real, and ultimately we are not slaves of our circumstances.

Our master, Rabbi Nachman, of blessed memory, told the following story: Once an itinerant astrologer came to a certain town, and all the townspeople came to ask his advice concerning their business affairs and their hardships. In this town dwelt a poor man who was exceedingly God-fearing. He spent all his days occupied in Torah study and divine service. After the astrologer's name achieved renown, along with tales of his wondrous salvations and advice, the poor man's wife began to importune him to go to the astrologer, too. Maybe he would receive some good advice in order to extricate himself from his grinding poverty. Since he feared God and was a man of faith, he paid no mind to her words. However, she would not relent. Again and again she urged him, until he could not stand up to her anymore. "Whether you want to or not, just go!" In Yiddish: Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un fohrt gegahngen!

After hearing his story, the astrologer told him: "Your stars have determined that you must become a thief!"

At this, the poor man ran out of the room and went straight back to the Beis HaMedrash (study hall) to resume his Torah studies, as before.

When he came home, his wife asked, "What did the astrologer tell you?"

"Nothing at all!" he replied.

In the middle of his meal, he began to laugh to himself.

"To be sure, the astrologer told you something!" his wife exclaimed. "You just don't want to tell me!" She began to berate him: "Whether you want to or not, tell me!" Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un zohg mir!

So he confessed what the astrologer had advised him to do. The woman was deeply shaken by the strange instruction the astrologer had given her husband, who was such a chassid (devoutly religious man).

He went to the Beis HaMedrash as in the past, and returned to his holy books and divine service. After awhile, hunger began to gnaw at the poor couple. Finally, the wife turned to her husband and said, "I am already willing for you to go out and steal, as long as we don't have to starve like this anymore!"

Day after day, she kept this up, urging him to go out and steal just once - only as much as they would need to stay alive. "Whether you want to or not, just go!" Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un fohrt gegahngen!

The poor man made up his mind that he had no choice, since his family was starving. He would go and steal from the richest man in town; however, he would take only the smallest amount, just enough to stay alive. Upon entering the rich man's place of business, he found the guards sound asleep. No one asked him a thing. He went from room to room until he came to the safe, pocketed an extremely small amount, and brought his ill-gotten gains back to his wife.

"See!" he declared. "This one time I have fulfilled your wishes!" - but he resolved never to go back and commit such an act of theft.

Time passed, and the pangs of hunger began to afflict them again. The poor man's wife begged him to steal some small amount, just one more time. "Whether you want to or not, just go!" Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un fohrt gegahngen! Again the man was successful; and again and again, he continued to steal.

Soon there was a great hue and cry in town. There was a thief among them of such consummate skill that he would steal the slightest amount whenever he wished, and never be caught. This was a source of amazement even to the other thieves, for none of the local thieves was familiar with this talented fellow. They wanted to initiate him into their band. Therefore, they resolved to search for him until they captured him. Since these thieves, too, were born under a good star for stealing, they caught him - and it was a wonder in their eyes who the master thief turned out to be! The poor man became their friend and partner in crime.

One day the thieves came to him and told him that in the king's palace were some extremely precious garments, ornamented with precious stones and pearls. If they could steal them, they would become very rich. For a long time, the thieves had bemoaned the fact that they could not steal the precious garments because the latter were so well guarded. However, since their new comrade's skills in thievery were so great, he surely could purloin the king's clothes. "Whether you want to or not, just go!" Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un fohrt gegahngen!

He entered the palace, and because his stars were favorable, he managed to steal the precious garments. When he left the palace and brought them back to the robbers' lair, however, the former chassid and the thieves began to bicker. As soon as they sat down to divide the spoils, each side demanded a greater share. The other thieves objected, "It was our idea, therefore, we deserve the greater portion!" The former chassid argued, "If not for the fact that my stars were so auspicious, there would be nothing to talk about!" Since he had risked his life to steal the precious garments from the royal palace, the greater portion belonged to him.

The thieves did not know how to resolve their dispute. Finally, the man made a startling proposition. "Since the king is such a great sage," he suggested, "I will go back to the palace and ask him to decide for us!"

His comrades were shocked by this idea. "How could you appear in person before the king and ask such a question?"

"The king has a royal storyteller," he replied. "Whenever the king has trouble sleeping because of his many problems of state, the royal storyteller tells him a tale until sleep overcomes him. Through him I will accomplish my purpose!"

The next day, he entered into the royal palace. Late at night, he crept into the king's bedchamber and began to disturb the bed until the king awoke. Immediately he commanded the royal storyteller to tell him a story. However, the storyteller, too, was asleep. So the burglar impersonated the hapless fellow, and began to recount the tale of his predicament to the king, albeit in a disguised way. When he was through, he asked the king for his opinion about the dispute.

"What's the question?" the king exclaimed in indignation. "Without a doubt, the larger portion should go to lucky thief! It was his good star that enabled him to pilfer the royal palace!"

A little while later, the heinous theft was discovered, and there was a great uproar about the fact that someone could enter the royal treasury undetected and commit such an act. The king particularly was astonished, for he remembered the story and the question he was asked, and how he himself had given an answer. He was so astounded, in fact, that he had it proclaimed throughout the streets of the capital that if the daring thief would present himself before the king, he would not punish him in any way. The king merely wished to see such an amazing thief. "Whether you want to or not, just come!" Yoh gevohlt, nisht gevohlt, un fohrt gegahngen!

The former chassid acceded to the king's request, and told him the entire story from beginning to end. The royal ministers and judges, however, informed the king that notwithstanding his personal forgiveness, the thief must be tried for breaking the law of the land. They judged his case, and ruled that the thief be executed by hanging.

As they were taking him to the gallows, he saw in the distance his old acquaintance, the astrologer, carrying a large sack of torn shoes (Yiddish: shkrohbes) on his back. He called out to him, "Look where they are taking me! Didn't you tell me that my destiny was to become a thief?"

The astrologer mirthfully laughed at him and said, "Take a good look at the sack on my back, full of torn shoes. These are the shoes I wore out in all my travels, until at last I succeeded in catching you in my trap!"

For he was actually the Baal Davar, the Evil Inclination that had laid in wait in order to lead him to stumble through various forms of persuasion, until he captured him and ultimately brought about his death.

Breslov tradition has it that while telling this tale, the Rebbe repeated emphatically, "Whether you like it or not…" Yoh gevohlt, un nisht gevohlt... For this was the poor man's shortcoming: he entered into dialogue with his Evil Inclination as to whether or not he should do something wrong. If he had remained firm in his resolve from beginning to end, he would have been saved from temptation and lived a long and good life, serving God according to his former way.

There is an allusion to this in the biblical story of the temptation of Joseph by the wife of Potiphar, the Egyptian minister. It is written "And he resisted (vayi'ma-ein)…" (Genesis 39:8). The traditional musical notation for this word is a shalsheles ("chain"); that is, the Torah reader prolongs the last syllable by repeating the same descending melodic ornament three times. This corresponds to three stages of one continuous refusal. This is why Joseph was victorious in his spiritual test, and eventually became the king's viceroy. It was as if to say: "I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to - and it won't happen!" Nisht Gevohlt, un nisht gevohlt, un nisht gevohlt - un nisht vellen! (III, 98)

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