By Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Howard Schwartz
I want to tell you a story about a river and some herring. One day Reb Sholem came to see Reb Zalman. He had just been thinking about the problem of Divine Providence, and freedom of choice, and each time it looked to him that there was no way in which any human being could solve this conundrum. If there is such a thing as Divine Providence how could there be freedom of choice and if there is the freedom of choice then there is no such thing as Divine Providence?
This doesn’t give him any peace. So Reb Zalman said to Reb Sholem, “Go and bring me Wojtek. The ethnik, the ferry man.”
So he brought Wojtek, the ferry man and he said to him, “One of the tributaries of the River Bug, the Bialtchik has a very wild flowing and wild current, and it isn’t too far from here. I’d like you to take me and Reb Sholem and Reb Simchah, Reb Chayim Elyah down through the rapids.”
So Wojteck looked at them and he said, “I can’t understand. This is what the wild boys are doing. I used to do it in my youth and I still know the rapids quite well, but I can’t understand why you would want to do that.”
Then Reb Zalman said to him, “Well, how much do you get paid these days?” So he says, “It’s not an issue of money. I’m prepared to take you.” So he says, “Then what are you talking about? So take us.”
So they went and traveled and came to the river. And at the river they were sitting in a boat and Wojtek asked them, “Can you swim?” And they looked at Reb Zalman, saying,” Can we really swim?” Reb Zalman said to them, “Can you swim across the ocean?” and they said, “No.” And then he said, “Could you swim across the sea?” They said, “No.” “Could you swim across a lake?”They said “No.” “Could you swim across a pond?” And they said, “Efshar, maybe.” So he says, “O.K. Let’s go.
And they seat themselves and they’re tying themselves by the gartel to the gunwale of the boat, and Wojtek takes his place at the helm and asks Reb Zalman to sit way in the front and he gives him an oar. He’s sitting in the back with one oar and Reb Sholem and Reb Chayim Elyah are sitting in the middle annd Wojtek is steering it into the current.
The current takes them to the rapids with big boulders in it. They prayed t’filat yam –the prayer for travelling on the water. They said it in the beginning when they got started…and after wards when they would frighten they repeated it. They move and get down toward the boulders. Each time it looks really terrible but Wojtek seems to know what to do. So he gave a push in one direction, a push in another direction. Sometimes Reb Zalman took the oar and paddled on one side very strong, on the other side very strong. And they managed to avoid the big boulders. The water was white and foaming and it seemed that the river was making a turn and was going down more rapidly than they were willing. Reb Sholem’s face started to get white, and Reb Chayim Elyah was pulling himelf together. He knows that the boat was going to be OK, but something in his stomach isn’t happy.
At one point Reb Zalman has to push the oar very strongly against a boulder that they almost hit in order to avoid it and each time Reb Zalman did something Wojtek shouted from the back, “Dobzhe, Dobzhe.” Polish for good. So they made their way through and finally they came to the place where the Bialtchik issues into the Bug river, and there Reb Zalman said to Wojtek, “Now it’s OK. We can go”
Meanwhile the wagon that had taken them had come down the road while they were davening and they were still settling their stomachs and drying their clothes that had gotten all sprayed from the water, when Reb Zalman says,”Let’s load the boat now on the wagon.” They started lifting the boat on the wagon and they’re moving on out to another place. Soon and they come to this quiet pond. Reb Zalman asks Reb Sholem to take the oar and to row. Reb Sholem in his case starts rowing to the right and rowing to the left and he rows wherever he wishes and then Reb Zalman doesn’t say a word again, and coming back to the wagon, loading the boat on the wagon they come to a small waterfall.
They ask Wojtek if he would take the boat down a small waterfall. Wojtek looks at them and says,”Are you God-forsaken, are you crazy? There’s nothing that can save me. It’s not a big waterfall but the boat will break and I’ll break every bone in my body. I refuse to do this. I’m not going over that waterfall. The waterfall is surely the place where one can destroy himself.”
Whereupon he looks at Reb Sholem and asks whether he wants to go. “No, no, no! For me the calm water was all that I could handle I don’t even want to go back on the white water, never mind the waterfall!”
So Reb Zalman still doesn’t say anything and they come back to the house, the Beis Medrash. They pay Wojtek the driver and they give him a stiff schnapps for a Lechayyim and they all take a Lechayyim. Afterwards a discussion ensues about whether they have to bentsh gomel or not because after all it’s written in the psalm, 106 one that is for people who have to thank God people who were sick or in prison; and those who go down to sea in ships doing work in the mighty waters — that’s the one you have to bentsh gomel on to give thanks for your safe deliverance.
So he’s saying to him,” Well, what do you think, do we need to bensh gomel?” And they say, “Yes we do, absolutely!” So he asks them, “Why do you think so?” And they answer, “Because it was so dangerous. We could really have gotten killed Look, I still don’t understand why you took us to this place.”
So Reb Zalman says, “Alright, let’s just have patience for a while Now we should spend some time in prayer and meditation and afterwards bentsh gomel” Then he asks the question,”What is it that makes us have the responsibility of the freedom of choice?
Next shabbos they’re sitting at S’udah sh’lishit and they’re singing the psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, he leads my beside the still waters”. Reb Zalman in the middle of that nice contemplative song, bangs on the table, and says – I want to interrupt you right now for a moment and sing that song from Yom Kippur night that goes, “we are like clay and the potter of hand, in the hand of the potter.
KI HINEH KAHOMER
We are as clay in potter’s hand
He does contract, He does expand
So we are yours to shape at will
We yield to you–
Our passions still.
Like mason shaping rough-hewn stone
We are Your stuff in flesh and bone
You deal with us in death, in life
We yield to you–
please heal our strife.
The smith can shape a bade of steel
Shape the edge and bend the heel
So tn life’s furnace you temper us
We yield to You –
When they come to the verse:
“A boat is steered by helmsman’s might
He turns to left, he turns to right
As long as You keep straight our keel
We yield to You-please
make us feel,”
He turns to Reb Sholem and says, “He leads me beside the still waters — and on the rough waters. At which point do I have a choice, and at which point is everything preordained?
Reb Sholems’s eyes light up and he gets very excited , and turning to the Hasidim around the table he says, “I know, I know, I know why you did it! Now I know!”
Reb Zalman asks him, “What is it that you know?”
So he says, “…some people think that the freedom of choice they have is like the still waters and in the still waters whichever way I want to row — to the right or to the left – I row. But as it says in the Yom Kippur liturgy, “We are like the rudder in the hand of the sailor, whichever way he wants to, he turns to the right, he turns to the left
When they finish singing Reb Zalman asks him again, “Now sing that stanza again,”
A boat is steered by helmsman’s might
He turns to left, he turns to right
As long as You keep straight our keel
We yield to You
please make us feel.
They sing it again, “and as long as you keep straight our keel, we yield to you please make us feel”
So Reb Zalman says to Reb Sholem “now go through that whole experience, “What is it that you know? What is it that you see?”
Reb Sholem lights up now because he understand perfectly that the philosophers are arguing that God is doing divine providence of everything — they’re talking about the waterfall. When God takes you, there’s nothing you can do. On the waterfall you can’t steer, but on the plain lake, on the pond where the water is calm, there you can steer in every direction where you wish to go. But most of life is made up like that Bialtchik river where they were doing the white water traveling, which is to say, there is a stream which goes down from the high place to the low place but it leaves some room for you to do some steering.”
David Hamelekh, King David is saying “He leads me beside the still waters, and he gives me the greatest amount of free choice. But, gam ki elech b’gey tsalmoves–yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, which is like a waterfall, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Because who makes the waterfall in the first place?. It’s You who got me in the waterfall in the first place, it’s You.
And finally the holy Izhbitzer, Reb Mord’chai Yossef teaches: “When everything will be over, in the end, and we look back, we will realize that everything was divine providence, even our choices were decreed.
So why is it that we experience says Reb Chayyim Elyah, “Why is it that we then experience such trouble, such travail, such work, and the choicesthat we then have to make?”
Reb Zalman says, “That too the holy Izhbitzer says, God so loves us that even though he decrees everything that is to happen to us, He gives us the subjective experience. As this leads us, our work has done it because this is what gives meaning to our lives .This is the way in which He can invite us into partnership; not that we can do it by ourselves, or not that we can really do it at all, but the drama that God sets up is the drama of our choice.”
The next day Reb Gershon sought out Reb Zalman and complained that he just couldn’t manage certain things in life, the difference between that which is good and that which isn’t good was very problematic. He had trouble with that and he couldn’t find a way to make it worthwhile for himself. He was depressed and burst out saying, “Gevalt, gevalt, what am I gonna do?”
So Reb Zalman says to him, “I want you to go to the fish market and buy some fresh herring, not salted herring”
So he doesn’t understand but he buys the herring and brings it back to Reb Zalman who says, “You and I are going to eat some herring for dinner tonight. Go and prepare some herring.”
So he says, “How am I going to prepare it?” He says, “That ‘s your business.”
So he takes the herring and cleans it and gets rid of all the scales and he takes out the big bones from the herring and poaches it, and cooks up some potatoes. He and Reb Zalman sit down at dinner to eat and each time he takes a fork full of herring he starts to chew and there’s a little bayndaleh, a little bone inside and it doesn’t go and it doesn’t go…
It tastes very good but there are little bones that under any circumstance you can’t get out before you serve it and they trouble him a lot.
So in the middle of the dinner he turns to Reb Zalman and says, “Here it is again. This is what my life is, everything is good, but those little bones, boy do they trouble me, oy they’re such a nuisance…” So Reb Zalman says to him, OK Just for a ,moment run out to the grocery next door and get us a pickled herring and get us a salted matjes herring, OK?”
So he goes out and gets the pickled herring and the matjes herring and Reb Zalman cuts it for him and gives him a piece. He eats and he pulls out the bones and he pulls and they come out and he says, “Do you like that better?” He says, “I like that a lot better this way.” And Reb Zalman asks, “Why?” and he answers, “Because while it’s saltier and it’s harsher to eat, it doesn’t taste as good and as mild, but look over here the bones don’t bug me as much.”
He says, “Now have a shtickel pickled herring.” And this time he bites into a pickled herring, bones and all and chews it up and swallows it and it’s wonderful.
So Reb Zalman says to him, “How do you say pickled in Hebrew? So he thinks back and forth and finally he says, kovush. Kovush kim’vushal damye. It says kavush, that which is pickled is like as if it were cooked.
“Good,” Reb Zalman says. “It is also written, who is mighty? He who subdues his evil inclination. The Hebrew says, hakoveish et yitsro, or the meaning can be said to be the one who pickles his yetser hara his evil inclination. So he pickles his yetser hara and he’s mighty. Why? Because then he can swallow it down, with the bones and everything else.”
Reb Gershon says, *”Rebbe, how do I start pickling my yetser hara?”
So he says, “A little bit with salt of tears and a little bit with the vinegar of longing and a little bit with the onions of compassion, and the spices are like the peppercorns. And the herring is the flesh. By themselves you don’t want to eat them and that’s the way of the vicissitudes of life. The water’s the Torah that we have to be immersed in , in order for everything to come together right.