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Be Careful with that Last Thread


Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov

There is a parable told by the Dubna Magid in which he tells of a poor boy who went from house to house asking for used clothes to resell and earn a few rubles.

When he knocked on the door of the town’s magnate, he was told to go up to the loft and take any of the clothes stored there that he could use.

The young man went upstairs and put together a nice package of clothes with the hope of being able to sell them and earn a nice sum.

Looking for a chord with which to tie up the clothes, he spotted one hanging from the ceiling which seemed to be just what he needed. Without thinking too much, he cut it and suddenly heard a loud crash. The owner of the house came running up. “What have you done, young man?!” he shouted.

“I’m collecting used clothes just as your wife told me to,” replied the young man.

“And that rope in your hand?” insisted the angry red-faced owner

“I cut off a piece so that I could tie the clothes together,” explained the young man. “I didn’t think it was that valuable…”

“Look here, young man, the central crystal chandelier that adorned the main hall of my house was hanging from it!! Now, it’s all ruined!!”

This story came to mind in a recent exchange I had with a young woman who reached out to me to see if I could help her understand certain issues related to her Jewish identity. At some point she told me: I have already abandoned almost all religious practices. There are only two things that I still do without really knowing why. It’s probably in order to please my parents who are religious. These are the two things that continue to restrict my personal freedom. If I let go of them, I’ll be completely free and happy. Tell me, Rabbi, why shouldn’t I?

My heart broke when I heard the dilemma that was tormenting her, and my heart began to beat a bit faster. How could I help her understand; not her parents, but herself? How could I help her understand that this was not a conflict between her and her parents —and by cutting the last few strings she would be free— but that this was a conflict between her and herself, and that it would pursue her even if she cut the last two chords that “bound” her?

And then I remembered the story about the crystal chandelier.

“Tell me, are those two things strings that tie you down or are they roots that connect you?” I asked.

We continued talking and finally came to the conclusion that both could be true: they limit one part of her while serving to connect and nurture another.

According to the concepts developed in the foundational text of Chabad philosophy, the Tanya, each one of us has two instincts —“souls”— “animal” instinct that seeks to satisfy itself and the other, “Divine” instinct, that seeks to satisfy G-d’s will. There is a constant conflict between them. Sometimes one wins and sometimes the other. The goal is not to eliminate the internal “animal” adversary, but to keep on fighting, without giving up. It becomes easier when you understand that you are dealing with an “animal” and that it is natural for an animal not to understand .

When one is motivated and inspired, the fight is much easier; when one is unmotivated it is much more difficult and one must resort to willpower and “stubbornness” to keep on going, even without inspiration.

This week’s reading, Eikev [1] , opens with the continuation of Moses’ farewell address before his passing on: Vehaya Eikev Tishmeun, “It will be, as a consequence of your obeying these laws”, and continues to outline the results of complying with the laws of the Torah.

Our sages point out that the unusual usage of the word Eikev (“as a consequence of”) can also be understood as “heel of” and see in this a number of interesting lessons.

Vehaya Eikev Tishmeun can be understood literally as “the heel shall hear”. What does it mean that the “heel will hear”?

The heel is the most insensitive part of the human body. One can even step on stones and thorns with it without harm or discomfort. It is also the lowest part of the standing body. These two characteristics are linked with each other and represent, according to Chassidic teachings, the stage of history that will be both its end as well as its spiritually most insensitive. It is referred to in Jewish mystical teachings as Ikveta demeshicha or the “heels of the Mashiach”.

The idea here is that at the end of our history, at the spiritually most insensitive moment —the heel— , we will “listen”, we will finally “hear” and understand the things that eluded us during our long, difficult history.

We can also apply this concept to the life of the individual. We all like to understand. Why this? Why that? Whatever we understand regarding the meaning of the Torah and the purpose of Mitzvot will always be limited and incomplete; that is the nature of our mind and heart that have limited capabilities.

It is when we choose to remain connected, not because we understand and can explain why we should, but despite not understanding and feeling —heel—, that we can “hear” and capture the very essence of our connection to G-d that is nourished through the Torah and expressed through mitzvot.

The limiting “chords” suddenly become vital, life sustaining “roots”.

In the teachings of Chabad, it is often explained that G-d manifests Himself in three ways: Or Pnimi, Or Makif, Atzmus. In simple English this means: there are those aspects of G-d that can be perceived and comprehended by His creations, there are those that cannot be understood or felt, and then there is the essence of G-d that is beyond understanding and not understanding. We also have these three dimensions within us: there is a dimension that we have the ability to grasp and comprehend with our mind and heart, a dimension that transcends the reach of the intellect and can be “comprehended” through faith, and then there is the essence that bursts forth either when feeling threatened or in moments of great joy.

So the tool for this week is: when you are looking at your last thread, don’t despair; it may well be the first root of a new stage full of life, growth and understanding.

Also: when you find yourself with a “chord” that doesn’t seem to have much use, think about it before you “cut” it. It may be much more important than it appears to be. Don’t underestimate the value of anything that seems unimportant when it comes to connecting with your soul, with G-d, and with the Jewish people. If it seems to be of little value, it may very well be because of the limits of your conscious intellectual and emotional reach. All the more reason to appreciate its value.


  1. Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25


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