We fall into our own traps- but we can still get out of them!
Based on “ A Pinch of Snuff” by Y L Peretz-
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 -2017
We Jews love a good story. Why do we love stories—so we can take them apart, turn them inside out find meanings where there were none. Tell a Jew a story, and he will immediately give you a better one, with a better ending.
To prove it, I’ll tell you a story. A tale from the Talmud, of two preachers who set up open air classrooms in the middle of the market place. (Sotah 48a)
The first, the scholar, a brilliant teacher, leads a difficult discussion on a very complicated and intricate piece of law. Hardly a minyan listens to him.
The second, whom we would call a maggid, a story teller, offers a simple tale, some verse from the Torah, and then a string of beautiful stories and examples that address the imagination.
The scholar realizes that his audience has shrunk, while the other’s has grown. Very frustrated, he goes over to his competitor.
“ I don’t understand it. I have studied under the greatest scholars, I can present arguments that split mountains, but—no listeners. You, however, you come by with some simple tales and legends, and you are surrounded. How can that be?
To this, the story teller replies,” I will answer you with a riddle.”
“Two merchants came to market. One sold diamonds, the other sold pins and needles. Which one do you think had more customers?”
The scholar answers scholastically, “ Low price, high demand draws more buyers than high price, low demand. The seller of pins and needles had more customers
The story teller replied.” You just answered yourself. You sell diamonds, which no one needs, but I sell pins and needles, which everyone needs.”
So, I am going to sell pins and needles.
I have adopted a story by the Yiddish writer, Yitzhak Leib Peretz. He, like most Jews of his day, were no longer religious but he used the world of Jewish imagination and folk belief as the vehicle for his tales
So I will use his story, as we explore, on this Rosh Hashanah, how it is that we still didn’t get our act together since last year. It is called “A Pinch of Snuff” . (Maurice Samuel Translation). For those of you too young to know, a pinch of snuff was an old Jewish and non-Jewish social activity, tobacco without cancer and no drug abuse, but with a lot of sneezing.
Satan, the Evil One, the Enemy of Mankind, the Tempter and Destroyer, sat one day in his private office, idly examining his account book.
. . .And then suddenly his complacency vanished and he clapped his palms together: he had come upon the page bearing the name of the rabbi of Chelm, and it was as blank as blank could be. . . .
(Satan understood that he had only a short time to make the old Rabbi fall into his trap. After all, for a human to have lived without a single failure would undermine both Heaven and Earth) . .
Some little lust of his," murmured Satan, licking his chops. Some tiny desire, some obscure appetite!"
He calls upon his demons to do their best to entrap the rabbi of Chelm.
So, as the story unfolds, the Rabbi of Chelm is offered a bribe of a bag of diamonds to settle a case between a driver and passenger, and of course, he rejects it. The diamonds and the two litigants vanish in a puff.
Now, dear friends, that should not worry us either. Very few of us have the chance to have a bag of diamonds dangled in front of us. It’s not our problem.
He is then presented with a roll of money by an itinerant beggar, money that had been earned by conning others in the name of fake charity. “ Give it to the poor.” At once, the Rabbi gleefully shouts for all the poor to come. And the beggar and the money all go up in a puff.
And that too, my friends, is unlikely to be our problem. These big bundles of money, after all, for most of us, are only in fairy tales.
The Lillith, Queen of the demons, knows how to trap him, "I'll bring him in—the old ways are the best."
Here, too, she fails miserably, to seduce, even to have him glance at her for a moment, for the rabbi of Chelm is so deep in his prayers, that he ignores her completely.
Even here, to be frank, how many of us are going to be approached by “ drop-dead gorgeous.” Hah! A pipe dream!
Finally, Lillith recalls that the Rabbi had only one habit- he would take a pinch of snuff. An entrepreneurial demon hits upon the solution. . ..
Every Friday afternoon, having bathed for the Sabbath, the rabbi of Chelm used to go for a walk in the woods. He always took the same path and as he walked, he repeated by heart the Song of Songs.
Now, knowing himself to be an absent minded man, and fearing that some Friday afternoon he would wander out too far and fail to return in time to receive the Sabbath, he had measured the distance against the time it took to repeat the Song of Songs and halfway through the prayer he reached a certain tree. There he would sit down, treat himself to a hearty pinch of snuff , rest awhile, then get up and return, saying the second half of the prayer. Thus, he would get back exactly in time to welcome the Sabbath.
One fateful Friday, just before the rabbi of Chelm set out for his walk, a spindly-legged little fellow, . . . appeares on the scene, uproots the tree mentioned above, and carries it out farther into the woods; he replants it and sits himself down on the farther side.
The rabbi, meanwhile, arrives on the spot where he has always found the tree. He is halfway through the Song of Songs, and the tree, he perceives, is quite a distance off. He is shocked. Obviously, he has been repeating the prayer mechanically, rapidly, without absorption and contemplation. He will do penance at once. He will refuse himself that pinch of snuff until he has reached the tree. His nose itches for the grateful tickle of the snuff, his heart is faint with longing — but no! Not until he has reached the tree.
His limbs are feeble, and his steps are tottering. It takes him a long time to get there. And all the time there is this aching and longing, so that he can hardly see. And now at last he reaches the tree; he sits down and snatches the snuffbox from his pocket; but his hands are all atremble, and just at that moment a wind begins to blow from the other side of the tree and the snuffbox falls out of the rabbi's hands.
He reaches for it. The wind grows stronger and the box rolls away. The rabbi crawls after it on all fours, his body crying out for the strong taste of the snuff.
Not only has he failed to welcome the Shabbat, but even worse
For the demon kept blowing, the snuffbox kept rolling, and the rabbi, crawling after it in anguish, went out far beyond the bounds of Shabbat.
The brilliant young demon, returning to the nether regions, was at once entrusted with another highly important mission. Addressing the toxic assembly before his departure, he said: "Gentlemen, nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man down."
Very simply, we understand what it is that gets in our way. It is the very little things, the day to day shortcomings that bring us down. “Nobody stubs his toe against a mountain. It's the little lusts that bring a man or a woman down.”
We all recognize this shortcoming of ours. We don’t need to blame some picturesque demon from a Yiddish tale; after all, we do it by ourselves, very well. And it has nothing to do with keeping the rules of Shabbat or any other religious observance.
We live, for example, in a very fast age. Instant this, instant that. Very good, very convenient, very beneficial, and very much like a pinch of snuff.
Think of friends, for example. At one time, you would actually go across the street to chat in person with your friend. You had eye contact, you could see facial expressions, and you understood well all intentions. Then, we found telephones. No need to walk across the street, but at least, you could hear the tone of voice, and feel the intentions.
Now, that is too time consuming. We email, and text and instagram and tweet. All faster and faster.
Now, admit, how many times are you sorry that you sent a message to a friend that was misunderstood?
You hit send before you finished your message. You forgot to end with a kind word. You type one thing and your smart program types something else. It happens all the time. You push send. Our you push to all your list. Need I say more? All the imps and demons of that Yiddish story are jumping for joy.
Moral of the story- like something as simple as a pinch of snuff, a trivial push of a button, things turn topsy turvy. We don’t stub our toes on huge mountains. It’s the little things that trip us up.
But if I were to finish my Rosh Hashanah moralizing in this manner, I would be amiss, for it would seem to doom us all, since we all fall short of the Rabbi of Chelm. As a Rabbi, I must end a story on a redemptive note, a note of promise. If we can’t help each other to achieve a change of heart and deeds, then, after all, why be here?
The answer I will give is from a Rabbinic image. From one story to another. We see our shortcomings, and they may overwhelm us. The deck is stacked against us, it may seem. We are constantly stubbing our toes for nonsense, like a pinch of snuff. So this Rabbinic word gives us all hope. ( Talmud Shabbat 32 a)
The account in the Talmud asks us to imagine that we are standing in front of the scales of justice, nine-hundred and ninety-nine angels convicting us, and only one angel in our favor, and even if that one angel is only one tenth of one-percent in our favor, the scales of justice still tilt in our favor.
Yes, we get off track, we fall for a pinch of snuff, we fail for a word sent hastily, or without careful thought.
We can fix, we can repair, we can make amends. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days of hope. None of us knows what anyone else has gone through, none of us knows what guilt or pain may be inside. We have our doubts, we fall for something as simple as a pinch of snuff.
But our great message is that, as long as there is one millionth of a shred of decency in us, we have hope. Hope that we can turn ourselves around, even if it be for something as simple as a pinch of snuff. Hope that we can wake up tomorrow with a sense of decency, hope that we can wake up tomorrow and look ourselves in the mirror and smile.
How much more so is this possible when we are brought together, as today, as a community, as we have here, at Hollywood Temple Beth El. No one of us is an island . Together, we are a continent, a world. We hold and bouy each other up, together.
May we have a million reasons to smile as we face each new day and each new year. And enjoy a pinch of shnupf tabak. L’ Shanah Tovah.