Satsang at Synagogue


The Shema Yisrael prayer is Judaism’s monotheistic credo: Hear O’ Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." It is followed in the prayer book by three paragraphs taken from the Books of Deuteronomy and Numbers. The first begins, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy might.” The third commands us to wear fringed garments as a reminder of our religious obligations.

But that middle paragraph gives our Rabbi fits. It reads:

And it shall come to pass, if ye harken diligently unto My Commandments, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, that thou mayest gather in thy corn and thy wine and thine oil. I will give grass in the fields for thy cattle, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied. But take heed, lest your heart be deceived and ye turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; and the displeasure of the Lord be aroused against you and He shut up the heaven, so there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from all the good land which the Lord giveth you.

One Saturday morning, in the midst of all the tumult described in the preceding chapters, the Rabbi was giving a d’var Torah (discourse) on the above. “I have a hard time accepting that good behavior brings prosperity or that God withholds His bounty from sinners,” he confessed, adding that both were contrary to his own life experience. He even admitted feeling somewhat patronized by this scripture – then invited comments from the congregation.

From my seat on the opposite side of the dais, I eventually joined the discussion. “God certainly rewards the good and punishes the bad,” I ventured. “It’s the application that may be getting us into trouble. What is ‘good behavior,’ and what is ‘evil’? What fate represents God’s reward? And what His punishment?”

I then shared a story I had heard years before, at Satsang. A king had a servant who was an incorrigible optimist. When anything remotely negative occurred, he would immediately pipe up, “Whatever happens is good!” This got a bit tiresome, but the king put up with it.

Then one day, as this servant was giving the king a shave, his hand slipped, drawing blood. “Shit!” the king cried out. “Whatever happens is good,” the servant reflexively retorted. “Guards!” the king commanded. “Throw this insolent fool in the dungeon.”

After staunching the bleeding, the king finished dressing, mounted his best steed and rode off into the forest, to hunt. There, a pagan band suddenly emerged from a thicket, surrounding him. “Our god demands a sacrifice,” said the pagan chieftain. “What better prize could we have stumbled upon than the king himself?!”

They tied the king to a tree and began gathering wood for a fire. Then they noticed the cut on his face. “This man has a blemish,” the leader declared. “It is forbidden to offer him as a sacrifice.” So the king was released unharmed.

Upon returning to the castle, a chastened king recalled his servant from the dungeon. “My profound apologies,” he humbled himself. “That scratch on my face was indeed a blessing in disguise. I’ll never punish you again for saying, ‘Whatever happens is good.’”

But as the servant bowed and prepared to take his leave, the king had a face-saving afterthought: “I can hardly deny that your slip of the blade turned out perfectly well for me,” he again acknowledged. “But I trust your brief stay in my reeking dungeon made it anything but good . . . for you!”

"On the contrary, Sire," the servant replied with unrepentant good cheer. Had you not, in your wisdom, dispatched me to the dungeon, I'd have been there at your side on that hunt. Only I, Majesty . . . would have had no blemish."