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The Glory of Doing Nothing

The Glory of Doing Nothing



I have several addictions. I don't want to go through all of them here, but the point is, I've been struggling, getting off and then back on, going for therapy, getting my life together and then watching it crumble again through the thick haze of my self-abuse — and this has been going on now for some twenty years. I don't see it going anywhere. I made a decision at one point to try to be a good Jew — tefillin, Shabbat, kosher — the whole bit. Sometimes I manage to do that. Sometimes I crash and it all falls apart. Sometimes I just stay in bed for weeks, afraid of what I might do if I get out. So what has it all helped me? Whatever I do, I remain a miserable sinner. Sometimes more miserable, sometimes less. But what does G‑d want with sinners like me? What did He put such a louse of a creature here for? I just want to know: does He appreciate at all the effort I put into trying not to be what I am?


A story says it all. I heard this one from Aryeh Prager of Crown Heights. I have no recollection where he says he heard it. But the story tells it all:

He was big, he had an ominous laugh and they called him, "Yankel Baal Aveiros." I can't really translate that, but if I did, it would be "Jack the sinner." No, no, it's more than that: "the master of sins." It means, as they said, if there was a sin being done in Vilna, it had to be Yankel doing it. And if Yankel Baal Aveiros was doing something, it had to be a sin. Everyone has his department, and Yankel's was sinning.

So it was understandable that some Chassidim were concerned when Yankel started turning up whenever they made l'chaim. The chassidim in Vilna were perhaps a little more conscious of their image than those in say, Dubrovna or Nevel. Vilna, after all, was a hotbed of contention between Chassidim and their opponents. They had to look good.

So, even when they farbrenged — when they sat together over a bottle of vodka and a bite of herring to sing, to tell stories and to inspire each other to be better Chassidim — even then, they were wary of what their Chassidically-challenged neighbors might think.

And here was Yankel Baal Aveiros, as sinful looking as ever, sitting there amongst them. He didn't disturb — other than an occasional coarse laugh. It even seemed at times that he might be listening. But he certainly hadn't stopped sinning. And he made it clear to all that he had no intention to stop sinning. So, some thought, what is he doing here?

The older Chassidim would have left him alone. Let him sit, who knows? Perhaps one day a word spoken from the heart might reach to his heart through all the muck and squeeze out a tear of repentance. One tear in a lifetime, at least that.

But there were a few that didn't ask. At one farbrengen, they went to Yankel and explained, "Yankel, we think you're a great guy. We really don't mind you being here. But our children, you understand. We're worried they might see and perhaps be influenced. After all, Yankel, you know who you are…"

They had more to say, but Yankel didn't let them. His stare was a face of painful anger, of disgust and of spite and of every demon of every sin he had ever done — nobody could take such a look and speak. Until one hard kick broke the silence, the table came crashing to the floor, and the air rung with a shower of vocabulary most had never before been privileged to hear. When the door slammed behind Yankel's crashing footsteps, most sighed with relief.

But that wasn't the last they heard of Yankel Baal Aveiros. You see, Yankel decided to write a letter. He wrote it to the "Esteemed and holy tzaddik, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch." That was the rebbe of the time (the mid 1800's) for most of the Chassidim of White Russia and Lithuania and Yankel knew he was the rebbe of these Chassidim.

Yankel sat at his desk and cried as a master of sins is never supposed to cry. "All day long," he wrote, "my yetzer ha-ra (evil inclination) burns inside me like a baker's oven, screaming, 'Sin, Yankel! Sin!' I had no escape until finally, I had found a way, the only way, to quiet it down. And I sat there, and I didn't sin! And now they have taken even this away from me! Let all my sins be upon them from now on!"

It wasn't long before the Chassidim received a furious letter from their rebbe. I don't know the exact language of that letter, but the content was to this effect:

"You have no concept of what this Yankel achieves sitting there at your farbrengens. All your studies, all your deep meditation and prayers, all your spiritual ecstasy and cleaving of the soul to G‑d — all is hot air in comparison to the revolution this Yankel achieves in the higher worlds when he sits there and does not sin. With what presumption have you denied all the heavens such great delight?"

And so, Yankel was brought back to the party. And as he sat there and listened to the Chassidim sing, and even took a l'chaim himself, G‑d on High commanded His angels to strike up the band in full concert.

"But why? What great deed is being done that is so wondrous?" they asked.

To which G‑d replied, "Look at this being I have made! I have placed My breath within him and look at the impenetrable muck that covers it over! And yet, now he has managed to quiet the darkness! Now, if just for a moment, he has made that darkness does not sin!"

"For the delight of this moment, all the worlds were brought into being!"

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Hanalah Newark May 16, 2016

To Reuven I understand.
I believe something happened that made it so hard to do anything.
Don't blame yourself.
But find something extremely easy. Something that you can do. Something very small.
Maybe you can do just that one little thing and fly under the radar of whatever is holding you down and forbidding you to do anything.
Yes, something is there, holding you down, making it impossible to do anything.
But maybe you can find something so small that this down=holder won't notice. Maybe you can do that one little small something.
Maybe not. But look for something small. And, if you manage to do it, rejoice. Stand in front of the mirror with your arms up. Feel the pain of the rejoicing and affirm that you were right to do it. Tell yourself that Gd is rejoicing over you.

Tell your shrink. If it is a good shrink, s/he will rejoice in you and encourage you. Maybe then you can find another tiny small little thing and do it. What? Wash a cup after drinking coffee? Something smaller? Gd bless you! Reply

Fro November 9, 2015

I am profoundly made speechless by this story. Thank you Reply

Sarah Dovbaer October 5, 2015

Yankel and the Farbrengens So beautiful is this story that it not only humbles me but also gives me much hope! Children's first and strongest influences and ties are with their parents. To permit Yankel Baal Aveiros. to come and just be present with no judgement is a more powerful act then to have an aversion out of a pre- conceived fear. So the greater influence on the children would be the focus on G-d Light and Love as exemplified by their parents And also on Yankel. Now I know why G-d Loves more the sinner. Yankel has more potential for compassion then a righteous person because he knows the pain he carries living in such a hellish darkness. I can only imagine the Joy Yankel receives at the Farbrengens. It is almost likened unto candle lighting and Shabbos when everything stops for a moment in time and we all get a break from ourselves. The Rebbe says "The angels are jealous of he who struggles in darkness. They have light, but he touches the Essence." I will pray for Yankel. Sincerely Sarah

yaakov July 10, 2015

How do they know me.... Reply

John Cleveland March 19, 2015

Whenever you do a mitzvah, however small, stand up for two minutes with your arms straight, making almost a "V" for victory. Hold that position for two full minutes.

Or wait until you are alone, and then assume that stance. Hold it for two full minutes.

A voice inside, the yetser hara, will lie to you, saying, "Who do you think you are, assuming this triumphant stance?" But stand there anyway, defying the voice of the yetser hara. You DO have the right to tell yourself, through your stance, that you have, for this moment, overcome the yetser hara.

Your body is giving you a true message in this stance.

It is forbidden to think of yourself as a sinner. In fact, the Talmud says that others should remove the logs from their own eyes, instead of looking at the splinter in your eye. You have achieved enormously, and Gd knows it. You have the right to accept your own mitzvos and delight in them. We all fail sometimes. Stop feeling ashamed and claim your mitzvos. And atone for your sins, every day. Accept Gd's love for you.

Gd bless you in your struggle. Reply

Mechel ben Dov nj March 16, 2015

I study Torah..... twice a week with 2 different men on the phone.
Tonight's study was the Parashah that delineates the annual Yom Kippur service.
Hashem has made us all imperfect. Filled with fault and weaknesses

But I THINK He Knows that and along with the ongoing confession and attempt at correction He gives us Yom Kippur, to cleanse us and to provide us with forgiveness

Anybody care to comment? Reply

Julie Durham, UK July 15, 2012

To Barty Barty, what would it take for you to consider yourself a Mensche? Make a list and work on it, ticking off each one as you go. This puts you in the driving seat; you decide where you go.

And hey! There is a small person watching you! I bet he thinks your wonderful, he wouldn't mimick you if he didn't love you. Why do you undervalue what you have? G_d gave him to you. Give him a hug and say thank you to G_d. Reply

Xilimon Qro, Qro/MEXICO July 14, 2012

Of sin and sinners. Of all articles I have read about sin and sinners this is by far the most inspiring. It's hopeful without overlooking the sin and it makes of this site a vitual farbrengen site. Thank you Rabbi Freeman with all of you I wait patiently for the coming of the Moshiach. Reply

Julie Durham, UK June 21, 2011

To the person who asked the question If you set your goals too high they will fail you. Set yourself that which is truely doable for you - even if it is only to make a cup of tea and drink it. Then when you've done that, acknowlege your effort and achievement. If you fail at a task, say, "OK that didn't go to plan" ( No judgement, it only adds to the problem.), Then say "I will do better next time." Repeat and repeat and repeat. This is the only way to go forward. And note this - There is no arriving at perfection, there is only the constant effort to get there for all of us! You are closer to the truth because you do not suffer from thinking you are good enough without further effort, Many people believe they have already arrived, and this is the worst kind of blindness.
Pray for strength and courage - you will get it!! Reply

Beverly Kurtin, Ph.D. Hurst, TX January 4, 2011

Blindness? I've read the holy books of several religions, not because I would ever consider leaving Judaism but out of a sense of wanting to know what other religions teach. Strangely enough most religions have more in common than we might think. They all have their good points, some have some really sick points and a few are outrageously evil! It is impossible to know everything about a religion, even our rabbis can't know everything some people think they should.
In the New Testament it says, "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" This, I think, is what the Chassidim were told by their rebbe. To the person who asked the question, try to see yourself as G-d sees you. You are loved more than you can feel or understand; let the answers to your prayers be heard. It is hard, but quiet your thoughts and let the voice of G-d be heard. You are loved, accept it. Reply

Anonymous January 3, 2011

ruth Here we are a third time. You see my post Jan. 2, 2011 about the blindness of rabbis. You can see that i made this assertion before the dismay you posted under another topic.
This Yankel story is so apropos to you. It took a letter of furious rebuke, from the Rebbe of his time ( mid 1800's ) and G-d no less, to wake the Chassidim to what Torah was revealing in them, blindness to a Jew. As pertaining to rabbis, i am not sure that there is a greater sin. Nor more common. Bide your time for a personal encounter with, understanding from a chosid, rabbi or non-rabbi, because they are not blind.

G-d bless. From somewhat of a Yankel myself, a blind rabbi would say. Fight ! Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma January 3, 2011

the guest house known as hospitality It's a Jewish tradition, and a beautiful tradition, to welcome people to our table. It's a beautiful tradition to open our doors for the sick and hungry, whether in charitable ways, or face to face, to take in a stranger in need or for the sake of, friendship.

The Book of Ruth has a most beautiful tradition, and that is the gleaning of the fields, the corners left for those who need to eat. And thus it was that Ruth worked in these fields and met Boas, as Naomi's countryman, and a story was spawned that is pure gold, about the harvest, in all respects.

For me, the divinity that calls here, was the opening of a door to G_d, as there is Divinity within every single one of us, and there was a deep and beautiful lesson in the story as discussed above (Carmen and others) Reply

Anonymous January 2, 2011

Meaning What the story holds for me is the blindness of the rabbis. " It's not enough to search in Torah for what it reveals to you. You must be conscious of what Torah reveals in you. " Since i see what Torah reveals in you R. Tzvi, it attracts me to try and learn from your words of Chassidus.

Thank you from a difficult Judaism student. Trying to work on improvement even if imperceptible to most. But not all. Reply

Carmen December 30, 2010

Paraphrasing "This is to teach us that taking in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence
– Talmud, Shevuot 35b, commenting on the fact that Abraham interrupted a visit from G-d to invite three passing wayfarers into his tent (Genesis 18:4)"


-This is to teach us that taking IN fellow human beings is greater than receiving the Divine Presence.

-This is to teach us that practicing G-d´s love is more important than intelectually, or even vivencialy, aknowloging Him ,in certain circumstances.

-This is to teach us that G-d´s knowledge ,without practice, can mean nothing,or even mean the intended opposite, since it can turn into pride , egotism and the formation of castes among us,which is certainly not what is meant by G-d to us.

To Anon:

I think that that the anguish you mention is more an anguish of the knowledge that we are separated from fellow human beings than separated from G-d.

Don´t you think? Reply

ruth housman marshfield hills, ma December 30, 2010

as stories are also for climbing This is a wonderful story, about the sinner, and those who sat in the circle of the just and righteous, and did not sin. And how it was just that this Yankel should sit there, because his effort at not sinning, was a great mitzvah.

We must all realize, at some level, that there is within the sacred, also the profane. That all bipolarities do ultimately fold together. So we cannot have the one, without, the other. Perhaps on a very cosmic level, we do need the Yankels of the world to remind us not just how to make ourselves better, but that reaching out, is what it is all about, and that it is the reach, the hands out and hands on experience, of being charitable, of being non judgmental, of helping each other, palms outstretched, that do inform the story itself, that learning curve that is inbuilt, within most stories.

We are vines in the vineyard, and we do cling to each other, in adversity, and in good times, and all the betweens and betwixts. We need each other to be complete. Reply

Adam Winnipeg, Canada via December 28, 2010

I am Yankel I feel that I am Yankel. He cannot stop himself from sinning, and neither can I. Or, perhaps I don't. In any case, I appreciate the story and its application to my life is clear: if I can just sin for five minutes without sinning, in my mind or heart or speech or deed, then it is an accomplishment. Reply

Anonymous Boston, ma December 28, 2010

Take one problem at a time....once you have fixed it move on to the next.
Never give up! Each mitzvah is worth way more than any wrong doing you commit. Reply

IF RH, Israel December 28, 2010

Wonderful article Rav. Freeman!!! sure helps not to get down on oneself to hard when doing something wrong...after all we are only human and G-d did not make us perfect...but we always have to try to do our best... Reply

Carmen December 28, 2010

I understand this feeling... The feeling of a silent begging for just an opportunity... An ever denied opportunity to be given to me by my fellow men (and women)....

Heavens cry... I know they cry. And when they don´t cry, they burn, like Carmel has burnt... Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl December 28, 2010

thinking, thought, self analysis if thought itself is a sin, there is no escaping being a sinner. free thinkers understand this and only through concentration and meditation can sin be conquered. as soon as meditation stops we continue sinning and it is inevitable due to generations of misguided inequities of the soul. this is why jewish traditions prevail and every year there start a new. we all hope for the madness to stop but it never does only showing us briefly in focused concentration that for a small moment in time it can actually exist. the eternal tease if you will. if we were to maintain this translucent thought indefinately we would feel inadequate or as zombies never knowing which direction to turn but simultaniously walking in the light of wisdom and knowledge. here in lays the dilemma. live our lives as we see others or walk in our own path but being looked at by civilization as walking zombies who walk the planet in G-ds name. the choice is always ours to live with and free will determines your path. Reply

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