It once happened that Reb Avigdor Halberstam, the brother of Reb Chaim of Zanz, was invited to spend Shabbos at the home of a man known for his wealth but not his compassion. He was infamous for treating his servants harshly and firing them for the slightest mistake.
As was the custom in those days, the cook prepared a cholent for Shabbos lunch. In deference to their guest, the cook passed the pot of stew to Reb Avigdor, who was expected to ladle it out to the host, the family, and any other guests present.
The rebbe breathed deeply of its aroma. Instead of ladling the stew, however, he took a spoon and tasted some right from the pot. “How unusual!” he cried and ate some more. “This is the best cholent I have ever tasted!” And as his host and Hasidim watched in amazement, he ate all the cholent in the pot, leaving nothing for the rest of them.
Rather than apologize, Reb Avigdor turned to the cook and said, “Fabulous! Perhaps you have a bit more?” The woman brought out the last of the cholent, and the rabbi ate it all.
The host and his family were stunned. Never had they had a guest behave this way, and certainly not one of Reb Avigdor’s stature. Yet, in deference to their guest, they said nothing and made do with challah.
After Shabbos, the rabbi and his students thanked the family for their hospitality and left. When they were outside the town, the Hasidim asked the rebbe about his bizarre behavior. “When our host passed me the pot of cholent,” the rebbe said, “its aroma smelled of kerosene. It was clear to me that the cook had mistakenly added this to our food rather than vinegar. If I allowed our host to taste the cholent he would have fired the girl on the spot. So I ate the whole thing to save her job. They can think of me whatever they wish, but of this young girl they should imagine that her skills are so fine as to cause a rabbi to act like a chazzir.”
How important is your reputation? Are you willing to look the fool to protect another from undeserved retribution? Are you sure?
There are many stories of rebbes, saints, gurus, and the like acting crazy in order to make a point. So many, in fact, that we have a term for this: crazy wisdom. The craziness of crazy wisdom refers to its flying in the face of convention. The problem with crazy wisdom is how to tell whether the wisdom is crazy or the sage is simply insane.
Reb Avigdor’s Hasidim were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt during dinner, but afterward they demanded to know what was going on. This is a good model for all of us.
Reb Avigdor’s willingness to play the chazzir to protect another from unjust punishment shows that he was bigger than his reputation. He would take the bad press and know that his motives were just. Moreover, he was willing to explain himself to his students. He could have said, “Never question my judgment!” Instead, he honored their need to know and explained the reasons for his crazy behavior. This is a way to test all our spiritual teachers: Are they willing to explain themselves to us, and are their explanations rooted in justice and compassion?
Cholent (from the French word for “hot”): A thick stew that could be prepared on Friday and left simmering all day Saturday, developed by the Jews of southern France in response to the law prohibiting lighting a fire on the Sabbath.
Challah: Twisted loaf of bread prepared especially for the Sabbath.
Chazzir: A pig.