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The Old "Losing your Life to Save it" story
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I will never fully understand what happened. I was in a trance, and I said many things that were true, and many that weren’t. I think I now know why I did what I did, though. And an old Chassidic fable explains it better than I could directly:
One day, long ago, a young man came to a town on business. He booked a room at the inn, and stayed for Shabbat.
Saturday morning, in the synagogue, he saw an old beggar off to the side. The man was ragged, and his clothes smelled— the other congregants all kept their distance. This was a wealthy town; the visitor noted that there were no other beggars anywhere around. The visitor was curious about the old man’s story.
When he asked about the beggar, the men in the congregation rolled their eyes. “That’s Moshe,” they said; “he was once revered as a great teacher. Then he turned out to be a great fraud. Ignore him.”
Saturday night, after the Havdalah prayers, the visitor had planned to have dinner with a few wealthy merchants in town. As he was leaving the synagogue, however, he saw Moshe huddled in a corner, bent over a book, trying to read in the dim candlelight. Fascination got the better of the young man, and he walked over, introduced himself, and asked Moshe what he was reading.
Moshe looked up, suspicion and fear on his face. He was often roughed up and cursed by the men in town. When he saw the visitor meant no harm, Moshe’s face softened, and he explained the tractate he was studying. It was a difficult passage on the life to come, and yet Moshe articulated the controversies effortlessly, giving a mini-lecture that lasted 20 minutes. It was spellbinding, and the visitor — himself no slouch when it came to Torah and Talmud — was amazed.
”You’re a sage,” said the visitor. “Why are you living like this? Why aren’t you teaching? You should have students! You should be a rebbe!”
Moshe shrank and trembled, and looked away, into the feeble light of the candle. For a long moment he said nothing, then sighed.
”Many years ago, I was a teacher. I was a famous one — you can ask, the old men will remember. By the time I was 25, I was renowned for my learning, and for my ability to explain the most arcane concepts with ease and clarity. People gave me money; rich men invited me to give lectures in their homes. Many prominent men tried to get me to marry their daughters. I was full of myself, filled with pride, certain that the Creator had given me a very special gift.
One day, the king himself sent for me. He was not Jewish, of course, but his court was filled with learned men from every tradition. The king asked me questions, and was astounded, even delighted at my answers. I was given an elegant apartment in the palace, and his Majesty announced he would build me a library and a lecture hall — he wanted me to spend as much time as I could in his court. Part of me loved it, but part of me loathed what was happening. I could feel my own sense of pride swelling in me like a cancer, and every word of praise, every eager nod when I made a clever point began to make me feel sick. Others were jealous of me, and conspired behind my back, and I mocked them to their faces, while inside, a small voice told me that what they were saying was true.
All of this prestige was building a wall between me and the Creator. And the more gifts I received, and the greater my stature as a teacher, the sicker and more alone I felt. At one point, I even thought about throwing myself off the palace walls to my death. I couldn’t bring myself to do that, and throw away the life the Creator gave me.
I came up with another plan. One night, I snuck out of my rooms, and went to where the palace janitors kept their tools. I found a tall ladder, and I carried it around to the side of the building where the king’s lovely young daughters had their apartments. I placed the ladder so it reached to the window of the youngest princess, a girl of 15. I climbed until I was halfway to the window — and then, I began to shake the ladder violently, so it clattered hard against the stone walls of the palace.
The guards came running with torches, and as they approached, I took one more step up, so that they would see me drawing close to the window of the princess. I wanted it to be clear to anyone who saw that there could be no mistaking what I was doing; it had to be obvious to all that I was on my way to rape this innocent girl. The guards dragged me off the ladder, and brought me before the king.
His Majesty was purple with fury and betrayal. He said I ought to be hanged, and I admitted it was so. He asked what I had been doing, and I explained that it was clear to everyone what I intended. The king struck me, spat on me, and ordered his men to strip me and throw me out. ‘I won’t kill you,’ he said. ‘I want you to live with your shame all your days.’ A decree was issued publicizing my fraudulence and wickedness, warning everyone to stay away from me and not listen to my teachings. Since then, I have lived on the edge, begging for food, trying to find a quiet place to sleep and study. I will live this way until I die.”
The young visitor’s mouth was agape. “Why would you do such a thing? Why would you make yourself appear to be a lecher, a rapist? What madness is this?"
Moshe smiled. “There are sages who, I suppose, can be both celebrated and at peace. For me, the greater the praise I received, the more it seemed I was admired, the greater my pride swelled until there was little room left for the Moshe who just wanted to be close to the Creator. I couldn’t be the great Rav Moshe and still be connected to G-d; only in being broken and disgraced could I be empty enough to be filled by the light.”
The visitor shook his head. “But you lied, and you let everyone believe that lie.”
Moshe nodded. “They saw what they saw, and drew their own conclusions. And as I said, the only alternative was to take my own life. If I had done that, the king and his courtiers might have felt anguish, wondering what they could have done to help me stay; this way, they felt only anger and contempt, so their souls were spared any sense of lingering guilt over my fate.”
The visitor sat silent for a while. “But what about all the students who won’t learn from you now? What about the light of learning you could have revealed?”
Moshe gave a sad smile. “I still have students. They are few, and they do not revere me. They come, like you, curious — and if I can, I offer them something. These are the ones I am meant to teach.”
The visitor made one last attempt: “What if I tell everyone the truth you told me? That you only pretended to want to break into the princess’ room, and you never would have hurt her? What if I told everyone this was a self-destructive ruse?”
Moshe laughed. “They would say old Moshe had fooled another one, and they would mock you for being gullible. What I have said is the truth, but no one will believe me, or you, if you tell the story. Go in peace, my friend, have a joyous week. And if you come back through, come visit an old man and share with me something you’ve learned.”
The visitor went away, humbled and confused. It was only a few years later, when he himself was now a wealthy merchant, renowned for his piety and his charity, that he learned of old Moshe’s death. And only then did he write down the story of the ladder, of a lie, and of what it meant to destroy a life to save it.
In case you’re wondering, this is about 50% the actual fable from Chassidic oral tradition and 50% my own embellishments, manufacturing something that explains… a little. “Traumaversaries” are real things, and nine years on, I am still haunted, but I try each year to understand a little more about what I did and why I did it. It has become necessary to believe I did this to save my life. Perhaps in a few more years, I’ll see it differently.
Thanks for reading, and tolerating a brain that sometimes must return to this one story again and again.