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!"