A Tsadik in Pelts--Getting Wrapped Up in our Self-Righteousness
Rosh HaShanah 2020
Rabbi Norbert Weinberg
How many of you here still can speak or understand mama loshen, Yiddish?
Bear with me, then ,as I give a lesson on Yiddish language and fur coats.
Lately, fur coats have had bad publicity. While we all love to keep warm , and the fur is smooth to the touch, it does bother us to think of the tsaar baaley chayim- the pain of living creatures that is involved in the making of furs.
However, for my purpose of illustration, I want us to step back in time, over a century ago, before central heating, and before synthetics were available, to a time when a fur coat was a truly desirable and necessary garment any where north of sunny California.
Then, in those days, it was good to be wrapped up in furs, and Jews wore furs, and dealt in furs, as well. To be wrapped in a fur was good, except, it turns out, one type of fur-wearer.
There was a phrase for one particular fur-coat wearer--a Tsadik in Pelts.
A righteous man wrapped in pelts, furs. This was intended as an insult. Now, keep in mind that this was before the time of PETA and all the to-do about cruelty to animals. So what could be so wrong with a righteous man who had a fur coats. Yet a Tsadik in pelts--a saint in furs-is the Yiddish nickname for a hypocrite. It's a play on words. A Tsadik is not just a righteous man--it is also another name for the Hebrew letter, Tzadi. The last letter in the word pelts, fur, is the letter tzadi, also called tzadik. But if you remember your aleph bet from Hebrew school days, when the letter tsadi comes at the end of a word, it written different --it is twisted and stretched out of shape till you can't recognize it.
The nickname for this kind of letter at the end of a word is, in Yiddish, shlechter, bad or wicked, because the tsadi has been stretched out, distorted, dragged down at the end, like the tsadik at the end of the word, pelts. The Tsadik in pelts is therefore , a shlechter tzadik, a wicked letter tsadik. To follow the metaphor, then, a tsadik in pelts is one who passes himself off as a righteous man, and yet, is in truth, a fraud, a hypocrite, twisted and bent out of shape.
The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, was a man whose sole passion in life was to find out the truth. He had no patience for pretense or falsity of any sort. He gave the following definition of a saint in furs:
What is the difference between a saint, tsadik, and a saint all wrapped up in furs, a tsadik in pelts?
On a cold winters day, when everyone else is freezing in beis medresh, the chapel and house of study, in walks the tsadik in his fur coat;he is warm and comfortable, because he is all wrapped up. He can begin to pray and study. But everyone else is still freezing cold.
On that same cold day, when everyone is freezing, in walks a real saint. He turns on the furnace, and now, everybody , including himself is warm, and all can begin to worship and study.
Thus it is with the hypocrite who publicly wraps himself in his virtues, said the Rebbe. The biggest tallit, the largest sukkah, the loudest voice at worship---he lets everyone know how good and righteous he is, and he warms his own soul, but no one else's.
The true tsadik needs no trappings. Instead, he does his good deeds, lends a hand, opens his purse, gives a good word--in short he warms everyone's soul, as well as his own.
It is at this time of the year,our Yamim Noraim, as we come before God to make a clean slate, of our past and to look to a better year as Jews and as decent human beings, that we wish to see ourselves as tsadikim, as righteous. We come to the synagogue with our personal baggage of worries and troubles, we examine ourselves, we pray for ourselves. We are introspective and, by the close of the day, as the shofar is sounded at Neilah, we have some sense of spiritual uplift, of having cleaned our souls. We can go out with a warm glow that will hold us in good stead until the next Rosh Hashanah rolls around.
But in so doing, we remain, a tsadik in pelts, in we remain a saint wrapped up in our own self-goodness, and we thereby have done nothing to fulfill our obligations to those around us. We are far from truly being righteous.
There is nothing new in this idea. 25 centuries ago, the prophet Isaiah observed the same problem. We will read of it in the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning. His people come to him with the complaint--"We are such good Jew's, they exclaim--see how we are fasting, tormenting ourselves, we are dressed in sackcloth as a sign of our piety.
So why is it, prophet, that God doesn't answer us? Why is everything so bad for us?
To this he replies, "Do you think: this is God's idea of a fast? Rather loosen the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, feed the hungry, house the homeless, clothe the naked. . . Then shall your light shine in the darkness and your gloom shall be as the noon-day'
In short, to paraphrase the prophet's idea-- it is not what we do, each of us individually, in front of God or our neighbors that counts, but what we do for each other in front of God that counts.
The entire Mahzor, the liturgy of this day hammers in the plural. We must be good to each other and for each other, and we are all mutually responsible for what happens.
Why do we recite our confessional tonight in the plural. 'We have sinned, we have betrayed,"? Said the Ari, the father of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Isaac Luria," All Israel is one body and every Jew is a member of that body. Hence, there is mutual responsibility among all members." In this same sense, going back to an earlier day, the ancient sages warned us " When the community is in trouble , do not sit back and be merry, do not sit back and say, I will eat, drink and "shalom alay nafshi"-- peace be unto me, myself , alone."
How do we go about, shed our fur coats, and instead, light the fires for others?
In a normal year, in normal times, when the economy is functioning, and the streets are quiet, we tend not to think too much of others’ pressing needs. Now, however, we recognize that our great national prosperity, while it has achieved much, still has failed so many.
It all comes up to the surface, now, that we have a pandemic that has come close to being pan-demonic; some have real fears, some have imagined fears, and some pretend to be blind to the fears, so we have, on the one hand, an almost total shutdown of our economy, and on the other, people partying and then bringing home the bug to old grandma and grandpa..
We were just short of the kind of match to trigger a fire when we had the spate killing of blacks at the hands of police, and with the very legitimate protest, there are elements of both far left and right that seek to edge us closer to civil strife. So now, we have racial tension adding to our malaise.
There are opposing elements in political theory and sociology that set us on course for more social unrest.
There is the revolution of rising expectations. It is the trigger for unrest when those at the bottom have begun to move up but begin to lose patience with the slow pace of social change, and then find their way suddenly blocked.
In contrast, there is the fall of the petite bourgeosie, the small business owner, the middle and lower level managers, the people who had, in their own way, some measure of comfort and stability in their lives. American capitalism had kept them afloat ahead of their counterparts in most of the world-but, in times of social change, and especially economic distress, they feel themselves with the ground falling form under their feet.
One social strata expecting to move up, but finding its way blocked, another social strata suddenly fearing it is on its way down. So race is one aspect, economic stress, another aspect.
In tough times, people feel hateful. Frustration leads to aggression, as psychologists tell us, and it comes out in many ways- in physical violence of neighbor against neighbor, or domestic violence, or the social aggression of the Twitter and Instagram world that is the modern refuge of bitter people..
Now, to this volatile mix, we add a general social malaise that saps the inner strength of our fellows. It comes out of our national passion to be our own free and socially unfettered spirits, and no one so embodied it as my generation. So I quote, from Rolling Stone Magazine recently, this the journal of note of my fellow hippies and yippies (I date myself).
“More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual . . . mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose. . . . the family as an institution lost its grounding. By the 1960s, 40 percent of marriages were ending in divorce. Only six percent of American homes had grandparents living beneath the same roof as grandchildren; elders were abandoned to retirement homes.”
That sounds suspiciously like the gripes of right-wing Christian ministers, who have been warning about the dissolution of the family for decades—but this comes from the left, not the right.
He goes on to say that we have no meaningful communications with others on a daily basis, that we consume two-thirds of the world’s antidepressant drugs. With it, we have “the collapse of the working-class family. . . responsible in part for an opioid crisis . . . the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.”
This is a big burden- a much bigger burden than just defunding police.
Can I have my fur coat again? I think I want to wrap myself up in it and protect myself from everyone else.
So, how am I going to light the fires for the rest?
Elections can only do so much. Marching protests may feel good, but they also fade in impact, and continued unrest merely feeds the fears of most voters. That’s how my generation blew it all in 1968 and again in 1972. For those of you whose memory extends more than a few decades ago, I can only agree with an old Beatles song:
You say you want a revolution// Well, you know// We all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction//Don't you know that you can count me out ( Beatles Revolution 1)
So what can we do?
I am going to admit- I don’t have any magic solutions. I don’t have the power to cause the sun and the moon to stand still, like Joshua.
So, it is all small steps that we can take.
We can get the economy going again. Go to stores, eat out, go shopping, buy American made goods, if you can find them, so that more people can begin working. I am going to say, what Rabbis are not expected to say, but “Spend.” Yes, Spend. Get people back working. Perhaps, spend your money, where possible, in minority communities.
Yes, give, but seek to find charities that get people up on their feet, like Jewish Free Loan . I don’t want to disparage endowments to the arts or universities,( we should all be so wealthy) but your next door neighbor, or downtown neighbor, could put it to better use.
Give of your time, if you can safely get out, and volunteer. Find some place where your hand can make a difference for someone. Many of you here are retirees- there are many organizations that can use you to act as “ grandparents” to children. There is no lack of openings for good helpers, especially as life gets back to normal.
We are not going to save all of America, but maybe we can save the small corner around us. If each of us could find a way to make one person’s life just a little better, then we are no longer the “ shlechter Tzadik, the bad Tadik, the tsadik in peltz, and instead, we become true tzadikim.
If frustration leads to aggression, maybe an act of Gemilut Hasadim, a deed of goodness and kindness, can turn it around
I want to conclude with words of reassurance by Rabbi Tarfon, who, 1800 years ago, must have felt the same challenge on himself and on his colleagues.
" Hayom Katzar ve hamelakhah merubah-- The day is short, and the labor is long. The laborers are lazy, but the reward is great, and the boss is insistent!
Lo alekhah hamelakhah ligmor. You do not have to complete the task-- v lo atah ben horin lbatel mimeno-- but you also not free to quit the task."
If we wish to be truly righteous in the eyes of God, then we have to throw off our furs, our concern about ourselves, and light many fires to keep all of us warm.