Aug 24 2017

We Don’t Know the Story

In this week’s reading, we are told “you shall be ‘simple’ with Hashem your G-d” [Deut. 18:13].

As you might suspect, “simple” is a very incomplete translation of “Tamim,” which also means pure and unsullied. Our forefather Yaakov is called “a simple man, dwelling in tents,” which meant that he was totally devoted to G-d and to studying in the tents of Torah.

What does it mean to be “simple” in our verse? Our Sages explain that a person should not imagine that he can understand the underlying rationale of the Commandments that G-d gave us, to the point that he is able to create exceptions based upon his understanding.

Rav Yosef Horowitz zt”l, known as the “Alter [Elder] of Novardhok,” explains this with a parable.

In this parable, two kingdoms – we’ll use Hungary and Poland – were about to make an historic treaty between them, and the King of Hungary called in one of his closest ministers to serve as his representative to sign the treaty in Poland. And he gave his minister one clear instruction: don’t make any sort of bet while you’re there. He said that the Polish were compulsive gamblers, and it would not work out well were his minister to join in.

So with both his mission and instruction in hand, the minister went to Poland, signed the treaty with much fanfare, and sat down with all the participants – the Polish King, his ministers, and the rest of the Hungarian delegation – to a celebratory feast.

At the banquet, one of the Polish ministers commented a bit too loudly, “I know we got the better of this deal!”

When the Hungarian minister protested that his was not so, his Polish counterpart boldly asserted that their spies within the Hungarian government had told them everything, right down to the Hungarian minister’s unusual birthmark.

To which the Hungarian exclaimed, “But I have no birthmark!”

“Of course you do, and you’re not admitting it because of your embarrassment at having been duped. I will bet 100,000 rubles that you do indeed have a birthmark!”

Now the minister remembered his instruction, but immediately reasoned that this was not what the king was talking about. The king said that the Polish were experienced gamblers, and thus he, the Hungarian, would lose. But there was no way he could lose this bet!

Before you knew it, he had accepted, undressed down to his underwear to prove the story false, and collected his 100,000 rubles. So he returned home especially happy to deliver his report to his King.

But when the King heard the story, his reaction was, “Oh no, you did what?”

The King proceeded to explain: the Polish minister, on his last visit to Hungary, had insisted that the King himself should come to sign the treaty. He claimed to know the Hungarian minister, and that he was a fool. And he made a bet with the Hungarian King, a bet of 10 million rubles, that were he to send the minister in his stead, that the Polish minister would manage to get the Hungarian to undress down to his underwear in front of the Polish King and his ministers!

“Now of course, the one rule of the bet was that I could not disclose it to you. I thought about this for a long time, and I decided that the only way he could get you to undress like that would be to make another bet — so I told you not to bet with him. So you see, you didn’t win me 100,000 rubles. You lost me 9,900,000!”

The message of this parable is clear. We can imagine that we understand the rationale behind our Mitzvos, but at the end of the day, we do not. We have only our conjectures. What we do know is that the system has worked for thousands of years, holding us together in a totally unnatural way, unlike every other nation. As they say, don’t mess with success! Our job is to follow the Commandments, and not imagine that we can make them better.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.