It was a hot July day during the summer of 1866. The children of Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, five-year-old Sholom DovBer and his brother Zalman Aharon, had just come home from cheder and were playing in the garden which adjoined their home.
In the garden stood a trellis overgrown with vines and greenery which offered protection from the heat of the sun. It was set up as a study, with a place for books etc., and Rabbi Shmuel would sit there on the hot summer days.
The children were debating the difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. Zalman Aharon, the elder by a year and four months, argued that the Jews are a “wise and understanding people”who could, and do, study lots of Torah, both its ‘revealed part’ and its mystical secrets, and pray with devotion and ‘d’vaikus’, attachment to G-d.
Said the young Sholom DovBer: But this is true only of those Jews who learn and pray. What of Jews who are unable to study and who do not pray with d’vaikus? What is their specialness over a non-Jew?
Zalman Aharon did not know what to reply.
The children’s sister, Devorah Leah, ran to tell their father of their argument. Rabbi Shmuel called them to the trellis, and sent the young Sholom DovBer to summon Ben-Zion, a servant in the Rebbe’s home.
Ben-Zion was a simple Jew who read Hebrew with many mispronunciations and barely understood the easy words of the prayers. Every day he would recite the entire book of Psalms, pray with the congregation, and make sure to be present in the synagogue when Ein Yaakov was studied.
When the servant arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Ben-Zion, did you eat?”
The Rebbe: “Did you eat well?”
Ben-Zion: “What’s well? Thank G-d, I was sated.”
The Rebbe: “And why do you eat?”
Ben-Zion: “So that I may live”
The Rebbe: “But why live?”
Ben-Zion: “To be a Jew and do what G-d wants.” The servant sighed.
The Rebbe: “You may go. Send me Ivan the coachman.”
Ivan was a gentile who had grown up among Jews from early childhood and spoke a perfect Yiddish.
When the coachman arrived, the Rebbe asked him: “Did you eat today?”
“Did you eat well?”
“And why do you eat?”
“So that I may live”
“But why live?”
“To take a swig of vodka and have a bite to eat,” replied the coachman.
“You may go,” said the Rebbe.
Not a very flattering comparison between Jews and Gentiles, is it? Of course, the coachman, though he had “grown up among Jews from early childhood” obviously had not spent any time considering how the teachings of the Jewish people could apply to him. More’s the pity. He didn’t consider the example of Abraham and his household and how Abraham taught his non-Hebrew servants of the One God.
We know from last week’s Torah Portion that Abraham sent his most trusted servant to find a bride for Isaac from the land of Abraham’s father. We know that this non-Hebrew servant had learned the lessons of Abraham’s God well, as evidenced by his impassioned prayer.
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’-let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.” -Genesis 24:12-14
The result of the servant’s life of faith depended on Abraham teaching him, and all of the non-Hebrew household, of the God who created us all in His image. Rabbi Eli Touger also speaks to this point in his Torah commentary for Toldot.
Our Sages relate (Shabbos 89b) that in the Era of the Redemption, Jews will praise Yitzchak, telling him: “You are our Patriarch.” For in that era, the inward thrust of Yitzchak will permeate all existence. “The occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G-d. The Jews will be great sages and will know the hidden matters, attaining an understanding of their Creator to the [full] extent of mortal expression.”(Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Melachim 12:5).
Although all Jews will then live in Eretz Yisrael, they will as their ancestor Yitzchak did influence mankind as a whole, motivating all to seek G-dly knowledge. “And it shall come to pass in the end of days that the mountain of G-d’s house will be established on the top of the mountains…. and all the nations shall flow unto it. Many people shall say: ‘Come let us ascend the mountain of G-d… and He will teach us of His ways.’ ” (Isaiah 2:2-3) May this take place in the immediate future.
So what happened to Ivan the coachman? Did the Rebbe fail to teach him the same lessons or to live out the same holy life as an example to Ivan as he did to Ben-Zion? Is Rabbi Tauber simply telling us that Jews “naturally” seek the things of God while Gentiles only seek the temporal pleasures of the world? I can’t speak to Rabbi Tauber’s intent, but let’s compare Ivan to Eliezer (assuming Eliezer is “the servant” in the tale of Rivkah). What is the difference between these two men? They both spent many years in the household of a man of God. Did the Rebbe fail where Abraham succeeded or did Eliezer see and hear something in Abraham and in what he taught that Ivan chose to ignore in the Rebbe’s household?
Regardless of opportunity, the path of faith is walked by the individual. We are not old-fashioned wind up toy soldiers that are primed, set on the floor, pointed in a direction, and then set off to march. We make choices. We cannot blame others if our faith is weak or even if it’s non-existent. Ivan chose to consider the purpose of life as taking a “swig of vodka and having a bite to eat” while Eliezer chose to drink deep from the wells of salvation (John 4:13-14).
The path has been set before us. All we need to do is choose to face it, set our foot upon it, and take the first step…or to turn away and follow another trail through the wilderness. Our choice. But like the Samaritan woman at the well, we have already been talking to the one we seek.
“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”
Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” -John 4:21-26
Who are the sons of God? Israel is the obvious heir based on the promises of the Almighty to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but then why were the Jewish people expected to teach the rest of the world about God? If we are not heirs, who are we and what do we matter except maybe as “slaves” or “dogs”? Paul offers us hope. Paul said that we can be grafted in (Romans 11) to “sonship” through faith such as what Abraham had (Romans 4). He also wrote something else encouraging.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. -Galatians 3:26-28
The Jews are the sons of the Mosaic promise yet we Gentiles, through faith in the Messianic promises, will also be sitting with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the feast in the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 8:11). God be willing and merciful to us all.