There was once a Jew who went out into the world to fulfill the Biblical command – “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” [Deuteronomy. 26:20]
Many years passed before the man had explored the known world, except for one last great forest into which he entered. There in the forest he came upon a cave of thieves who mocked him: “Do you expect to find justice here?”
He then went into a hut of witches who laughed at him as well: “Do you expect to find justice here?”
At last he arrived at a fragile clay hut, and through the window he could see many flickering flames. He wondered why they were burning. He then knocked on the door, but there was no answer. He pushed the door open and stepped inside.
As soon as he entered, the hut appeared much larger than it had from outside. He saw hundreds of shelves, and on every shelf were dozens of oil candles. Some were sitting in holders of gold, silver or marble, and others were in modest clay or tin holders. Some were filled with oil and had straight wicks with brightly burning flames. Others had very little oil remaining and were about to sputter out.
An old man robed in white with a flowing white beard stood before him: “Shalom Aleichem, my son. How can I help you?”
The Jew said: “Aleichem shalom. I have gone everywhere searching for justice, but never have I seen anything like this. Tell me, what are all these candles?”
The old man said: “Each is a person’s soul,” as it says – ‘Ner Adonai nishmat Adam – The candle of God is the human soul.’ [Proverbs 20:27] As long as that person is alive the candle burns; but, when the person’s soul takes leave of this world, the candle burns out.”
The Jew who sought justice said: “Can you show me the candle of my soul?”
The old man beckoned: “Follow me.”
He led the Jew through the labyrinth of the cottage until they reached a low shelf, and there the old man pointed to a candle in a clay holder, “That is the candle of your soul.”
A great fear suddenly enveloped the Jew for the candle’s wick was short with little oil remaining. Was it possible for the end of his life to be so near without his having known it?
He then noticed the candle next to his own that was filled with oil, its wick long and straight, its flame burning brightly.
“Whose candle is that?” he wanted to know.
“I can only reveal each person’s candle to him or herself alone,” the old man said, and he left the Jew there alone.
The Jew stood there staring at his candle, and then heard a sputtering sound. When he looked up he saw smoke rising from another shelf. He knew that somewhere someone was no longer among the living. He looked back at his own candle, turned to the candle next to his own, so filled with oil, and a terrible thought came to him.
He searched for the old man, but didn’t see him. He lifted the candle filled with oil and a long brightly burning wick and he held it up just above his own. At once the old man reappeared and gripped his arm, saying: “Is THIS the kind of justice you seek?”
The Jew closed his eyes because the pain of the old man’s grip on his arm was so very great. When he opened them at last the old man was gone and the cottage and candles had disappeared. He stood there alone in the forest listening to the trees whispering his fate.”
This story, as told by Howard Schwartz, is not really about the objective state of justice in the world. Rather, it is about the commitment to justice each one of us has made. The old man (Was he God, The Angel of Death, The Keeper of Human Souls, one of the Lamed Vavniks – 36 righteous people who permit the world to survive?) became angry when the Jew tried to extend his own life at the expense of another.
The story uncovers a test – to what degree have we internalized Judaism’s moral principles and performed them in the world?
The month of Elul began last Saturday evening and ushered in a 40-day period in which we are called upon to do t’shuvah (turn and return to lives of dignity, integrity and decency) leading to Yom Kippur. We are as if living in our own great forest and God is calling to us: “Ayeka – Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9).
Like the first man and first woman in the Garden of Eden, there is no place for us to hide. What is in our hearts must be a reflection of the deeds we perform and the values we embody.
The Torah portion for this week is Shoftim in which is the verse – “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue” appears. [Deuteronomy 16:20]
Source of story: Howard Schwartz included this story in his book The Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. It is based on tale by Zevulon Qort who received it from Ben Zion Asherov of Afghanistan. I have edited the original telling.