Unable to control himself, the viceroy plucked an apple from the tree and took a bite. As soon as he swallowed it, he fell to the ground in a deep sleep and slept a long, long time. The viceroy’s servant tried to wake him up, but he couldn’t.
Rebbe Nachman’s first tale, “The Lost Princess,” is a fascinating recounting of the story of our lives. Being such, it incites us to ask a critical question: “Do I truly possess absolute self-control?”
Whether we are aware of it or not, we have all “eaten from the apple” – we have all erred in our own ways and fallen into a deep, spiritual sleep. Why sleep? Because when we are asleep, we don’t even realize that we are far removed from reality. Things can be happening all around us, critical events in our lives that we might one day look back at and wonder, “How could I have missed that?” yet we are utterly numb to real life. So how do we wake up? How do we become alive?
We each have our golden calf or other form of idol worship. While these may not be actual idols per se, they distract us enough to sever our connection with God. Many hobbies or acts we engage in pull us away from our true purpose in life, causing us to daydream. The Midrash connects the sin of the golden calf with the red cow, whose ashes have the power to purify. In the words of the Midrash: “This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace. They said, ‘Let his mother come and clean up the mess’” (Tanchuma, Chukat 8). The red cow in whose image the golden calf was formed is compared to the maidservant’s mother: it has the power to cleanse from idol worship. But the red cow is longer to be found. How do we sprinkle those ashes even today?
Our parashah states, “Take for yourself a perfectly red cow, which does not have a blemish, upon which no yoke was laid” (Numbers 19:2). The Zohar (Chukat, p. 180) comments that “red” refers to harsh judgments, whereas “perfect” refers to softened judgments. The harsh judgments result from our various misdeeds – since we have become distracted and dozed off, there is a judgment against us separating us from our Heavenly Father. We become convinced that we are distant and that we are not compatible with true spirituality.
Or, maybe worse, perhaps we are in a truly deep sleep and are not even aware that we are sleeping. We may think we’re serving God and living a meaningful life, but that’s because our self-evaluation is only at a surface level! Who can truly claim to be in a constant state of Godly awareness? But we can soften this judgment by finding our one “perfect” thing, our good point “which does not have a blemish, upon which no yoke was laid.”
No matter what we have done (or not done), the essence of a Jew is completely good and pure. For this reason, Rebbe Nachman teaches that there is no Jew who does not possess good points. Every one of us must look deeply into our souls and find the good that is expressed through our thoughts and actions. In order to wake up, we must first understand who we truly are and how special it is to be a Jew. We are sleeping only because we have forgotten our true reality! Like a mother who picks up and restores her fallen child, as we connect with our good point and realize our true essence, we are sprinkled with the ashes of the red cow and the various barriers that have kept us from spiritual growth are destroyed. We can return home.
Based on Likutey Halakhot, Hashkamat HaBoker 1