Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parable of the Rooster Prince

A tale of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov


(As told by Yonassan Gershom)

Once there was a prince who went mad and insisted he was a rooster. He sat on under the table naked, clucking and eating his food off the floor. The king had tried everything to cure him, but nothing worked, and he was in despair. How could this mad son of his ever grow up to inherit the kingdom?

Then a Hasidic Rebbe arrived and said he could cure the prince. The king was desperate, so he said, "OK, fine, go ahead, I'll try anything..."

So the Rebbe took off his clothes and sat under the table, pretending to be a chicken, too. The king was totally shocked. No doubt he had expected the Rebbe to argue with the prince or try to verbally beat it out of him. But the Rebbe knew what he was doing. And so, sitting there under the table, he got to know the Rooster Prince.

Then one day, the Rebbe called for a pair of pants and began putting them on. The Rooster Prince objected, saying, "What do you mean, wearing those pants? You're a rooster -- a rooster can't wear pants!"

"Who says a rooster can't wear pants?" the Rebbe replied. ":Why shouldn't I be warm and comfortable, too? Why should the humans have all the good things?"

The Rooster Prince thought about this for a while. The floor under the table was very cold and uncomfortable.. So he asked for pants, too, and put them on.

The next day, the Rebbe asked for a warm shirt, and began to put it on. Again the Rooster Prince objected: "How can you do that? You are a rooster -- a rooster doesn't wear a shirt!"

":Who says so?" said the Rebbe. "Why shouldn't I have a fine shirt, too? Why should I have to shiver in the cold, just because I'm a rooster?"

Again the Rooster Prince thought about it for a while, and realized that he was cold, too -- so he put on a shirt. And so it went with socks, shoes, a belt, a hat.... Soon the Rooster Prince was talking normally, eating with a knife and fork from a plate, sitting properly at the table -- in short, he was acting human once more. Not long after that, he was pronounced completely cured.

Moral of the Story?

Instead of condemning the prince for being mad and acting like a rooster, the Rebbe was willing to meet him where he was and then go forward from there. Of course the prince was not really a rooster -- but the Rebbe did not try to argue him out of his madness. That would have been useless. Instead, the Rebbe began with positive reinforcement of things that the prince was willing to do, knowing that he would eventually drop the crazy "rooster business" on his own.


Sure, there were in-between stages where the prince still thought he was a rooster but was already beginning to act like a human. Similarly, there are stages in tshuvah (repentance) where a person may be only halfway there, keeping some of the mitzvot (Torah commandments) but not others. So maybe the guy keeps kosher already, but is not yet observing the Sabbath completely. He's on his way, but not there yet. But does the non-observance of some mitzvot invalidate the mitzvot he is doing? Not as far as I know, because each mitzvah has a value in itself.

Repentance is an ongoing process, not a static state of perfect observance. Nobody is totally observant, and nobody is totally sinful. We all fall someplace in the middle. As the Midrash says: Even the biggest sinners in (the people) Israel are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds. We are all still traveling on that continuum somewhere.

The important thing is not whether we are doing everything perfectly, because nobody but God can do it perfectly, and none of us are God. The important thing is for our Jewish experience to be continuously growing toward an ever greater level of observance.

So, when a Jew says to me, " Look, I'm Reform, we don't do such-and-such like the Orthodox...": then I reply, "Why not? Who says a Reform Jew can't do such-and-such, too? The Torah was given to all of the Jews, and all of the mitzvot belong to all of the Jews -- so a Reform Jew can do anything that a Hasid can do."

Or, if a New Age Jew says to me that he believes in angels and reincarnation and spiritual healing, then I say, "OK, fine -- so did the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, and so do most Hasidim today! So Let's look at some of the Jewish sources for these things..."

For each Rooster Prince that I meet in the world, I try to find that point of commonality. At sci-fi conventions, I have led discussions about Jewish Themes in Star Trek. In New Age groups, I will focus more on the esoteric ideas in Hasidic thought, etc. With gardeners and farmers, I can talk about the wonders of God's Creation and how all things are singing His praises... and so forth. In this way, I seek to meet each person where they are at, and bring them closer to the Torah, which ultimately contains all of these things -- and so much more!!!

The Torah -- in its broadest sense as the totality of all Jewish teachings -- encompasses everything on earth. M'lo kol ha-aretz k'vodo -- "The whole world is filled with God's glory." So in everything and in every place -- even the darkest, remotest corner of the universe -- one can still find a bit of God's light, even if that light is obscured by layers and layers of seemingly crazy ideas. I look for those points of holy light, the points of agreement where we can understand each other, and then go forward from there. This is the Hasidic way.

(© copyright 1997 by Yonassan Gershom. From my old now-defunct website 20 years ago -- and still relevant!)