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The Ba’al Shem Tov: When the Fox Forgot his Parables

The Midrash[1] relates the following parable:

Once the lion, the king of the animals, became angry with all the animals. The animals consulted each other in search of someone who could go and pacify the king.

“I will go,” said the fox bravely, “for I know three hundred parables and I will use my wisdom to pacify the lion.” The animals said, “Let it be so.”

All the animals followed behind the fox as he respectfully and carefully approached the king of the animals. But just as they were nearing the lion, the fox turned to all the animals who stared at him anxiously and said, “I have forgotten a hundred parables.” The animals encouraged him, “There will be blessing in the two hundred you still remember.” After a few more steps towards the lion, the fox turned and said, “I have forgotten another hundred parables.” The animals replied, “there is blessing even in the hundred [that you recall].” Finally, just as he was about to approach the king of the animals, the fox turned around again and said, “I have forgotten everything. Every animal should pacify the lion as best as he can.”

The Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciple, Rebbe Yaakov Yosef of Polonne said[2] that the fox’s intent was that the animals should approach the lion with submission. Hence, he initially said that he knew parables that could placate the lion, so that the other animals would be willing to come before the king.

He connected this midrashic parable with a parable the Ba’al Shem Tov said before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur regarding the cantors and leaders of the communal prayers during the Days of Awe—that the people should not rely on them. Rather, each person should exert his own individual efforts when praying.

Don’t Count on Me

As a background for understanding the parable and its moral, we must remember that in the past, the cantor or leader of the prayers was the community rabbi or the Chasidic rebbe himself—the tzaddik. It went without saying that the congregants would rely on the tzaddik to do the job of prayer and repentance for them. They were fortunate enough to have a tzaddik in their midst who they believed could do the necessary work to maintain his connection with God, and hence, felt calm.

We use all sorts of “intermediates” in our connection with God. These help us to create the connection and keep it close. These intermediaries could be very good. But sometimes we need to ascend above them and create a direct connection with God.

The Ba’al Shem Tov did not like fox parables—a particular genre of allegories that was common in the time of the Mishnaic and Talmudic sages. He preferred innocence and earnestness, and the manipulations of the smart fox were not his cup of tea. Clearly, however, this particular fox parable is an exception, as it teaches us not to rely on the craftiness of the fox and his parables. This parable teaches us that the power of the parable itself is limited, for the fox ended up forgetting all his shrewd parables.

On a deeper level, when our relationship with God is by means of a tzaddik, the connection we have with the tzaddik should itself be treated like a parable—a parable whose meaning is the connection we have with God. The connection with the tzaddik serves as a relatively tangible means, which represents our connection with God. But even though this is a very human need—to enclothe our relationship with God in the guise of our relationship with a tzaddik—there are times when this is completely inappropriate. When Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur approach, the crafty fox teaches us: Forget the parable, forget the various intermediaries that help you feel connected to God, and stand before God as you are.

The Stages of the Parable

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that every process has three stages: submission, separation, and sweetening. The process of letting go of the straws we are hanging on to also requires three stages described in the parable.

Initially, the animals rely on the fox. The situation seems bad, the lion is angry at us for we have sinned. The fox knows how to pacify him. We have a chance to be rescued. All the animals accompany the fox to the king and dare stand before him, for they have put their hopes in the fox.  

The fox, however, does not act according to the script. Suddenly, there is no fox and no parable—nothing to rely upon. “Sorry,” says the fox. “You were depending on an external connection with the king through me and my craftiness. Now your lifeboat has sunk. Initially, the animals are frightened and discouraged. “What will we do? We are already standing before the king, we have nowhere to hide.” This is a state of deep submission in the soul, expressed by silence.

In the next stage, the animals, and we, manage to gather their strength and free themselves from despair. They (and we) need to say to themselves: Apparently, instead of falling into complete and utter despair, we must despair only from our earlier, misguided path and try a new path! Instead of our previous belief that we could not turn to the king directly, but rather needed the fox as an intermediary, perhaps we can try something new and surprising. Perhaps we can deal with the king’s anger ourselves, without an intermediary. This is the stage of separation, which sets the previous path apart from the new path.     

Will the animals, and we, succeed? Initially, we hesitate. Slowly but surely, however, we are filled with confidence. Finally, we gather the courage to speak before the King, the Creator and say, “Our Father, our King.” This is the stage of sweetening and speech.

You Can Do It

The fox was smart. He did not let the animals avoid their issues. If they had not placed their trust in him, they would have most likely remained at home, digging their heels ever more deeply into an already negative situation.

The lion may be angry. We may have transgressed before God during the year, so we understandably prefer to keep our distance. Especially because we don’t know what to do. This is why the fox brought us to the king. No more avoiding the situation. No more procrastinating, no more avoiding the issue. Just like when the doctor tells us, “Your situation is dangerous. You must take care of this!”

Making it all the way to the King’s presence does not only put an end to our avoidance issues. Once we are actually standing before the King during the Days of Awe, we are empowered. True, standing in the King’s presence makes us feel awe and fills us with anxiety (especially when we realize that we have no one to rely on). But, since the King is, after all, our Creator, His very presence, which we experience when we congregate with other Jews and pray to Him, inspires us with faith in our relationship with Him and in our ability to maintain that relationship. Similarly, a good doctor will clearly explain to the patient how poor his health is to encourage him to start dealing with and hopefully correcting it. At the same time, the doctor infuses the patient with the confidence and courage needed to heal.

Above we stated that the three stages of every process discussed by the Ba’al Shem Tov begin with submission, and then continue to separation and sweetening. Now we have added that even prior to the initial submission, there is an implicit state of sweetening urging and encouraging us to go through the necessary process. It is only through the experience of this implicit sweetening that we can properly submit and get the entire, revealed process moving.

Always Before Me

The daily service in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem included the daily sacrifice consisting of two sheep, one sacrificed at sunrise and another in the afternoon. These were known as the two “constant” sacrifices, or in Hebrew, the morning tamid and the afternoon tamid; the word tamid (תָּמִיד) literally means “always.” This central and consistent element of the Temple service became the basis for the notion that every individual (even when there is no Temple service) should constantly place two verses that include this word, tamid, in them: “I set God before me always”[3] (שִׁוִּיתִי הוי' לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד) and, “My sin is always before me”[4] (וְחָטָאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָּמִיד). From the moment that a person rises in the morning, he should contemplate and set God before him, always (as is written at the beginning of the Shulchan Aruch). Whenever he feels any hubris, he must also remind himself of his transgressions so that his heart does not grow haughty.

These two daily sacrifices are co-dependent. Normally, constantly thinking about our lowly state due to our transgressions—“My sin is always before me” is not recommended, as it can lead to despair with no way to escape. However, if we start the day by contemplating God before us, thereby preceding God’s Presence to any of our transgressions, we will have a strong anchor with which to ground ourselves at every moment and prevent ourselves from falling into despair, despite admitting our iniquities. On the substrate of God’s Presence, the individual can then reveal his shortcomings and yet remain confident that they can be overcome and rectified.

The sages connect the verse, “Seek God where He can be found, call out to him when He is near”[5] (דִּרְשׁוּ הוי' בְּהִמָּצְאוֹ קְרָאֻהוּ בִּהְיוֹתוֹ קָרוֹב) with the 10 Days between and including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These 10 days are known as the Ten Days of Teshuvah (return). On these days of return to God, we can turn to the King directly, building our connection and relationship with Him with confidence that we will rebuild what has been broken and be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet new year.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

The Ba’al Shem Tov: When the Fox Forgot his Parables

[1]. Bereishit Rabbah 78:7.

[2]. Keter Shem Tov (Kehot edition), §35.

[3]. Psalms 16:8.

[4]. Psalms 51:5.

[5]. Isaiah 55:6.

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