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  • Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier

Reb or Rebel?

Ha'azinu Avner, a student of the Ramban, left the path of Torah and mitzvos and became very wealthy and influential. One Yom Kippur he summoned the Ramban, killed and ate a swine in his presence, then asked how many prohibitions he had just transgressed. When the Ramban answered “four,” Avner argued, insisting that it was five. But the Ramban gave him a stern look and he stopped arguing; he still had respect for his teacher. The Ramban asked his student what compelled him to leave Yiddishkeit. “You taught me that everything in the world and all the mitzvos are hinted at in Parshas Haazinu, something I found preposterous.” “I still maintain that to be true,” his teacher insisted. “Can you show me where the parshah hints to me?” asked Avner. The Ramban davened, and Hashem granted him the appropriate pasuk—a harsh admonition to those who transgress the mitzvos: אמרתי אפאיהם אשביתה מאנוש זכרם, I was prepared to exterminate them, to make their memory vanish from among mankind. “The third letter of each word spells R’ Avner,” he explained to his stunned student. Deeply shaken, Avner begged his teacher for a path of teshuva. “The answer is in these very words,” the Ramban replied. Immediately, Avner set sail on a boat with no captain, no oars, and no map. He was never seen again. (Seder Hadoros 4954.)

Let’s explore this story and its possible messages: 1. What compelled Avner to do this whole Yom Kippur shpiel, and why specifically to his teacher? My 10-year-old son suggested that “maybe he was too embarrassed to tell the Ramban that he wanted to change, so he did it in a tricky way.” Well put, Yossel. What looks like rebellion or defiance in today’s youth is usually a desperate call for help, consciously or subconsciously. And to whom do they call? To those they respect and they know love and respect them; a parent, teacher, friend or sibling. It’s not easy, but it’s helpful to consider their hurtful actions as a testament to their love and admiration for us. 2. Avner exaggerated his sins but the Ramban didn’t allow it. This is a delicate balance. On the one hand, we don’t white-wash wrongdoings, four sins are four sins. But we also don’t exaggerate them. The greater we perceive our sins to be the more unattainable our teshuva seems. Let’s not talk ourselves into eternal doom. 3. What initially drove Avner away from Yiddishkeit? He was told that everything can be found in the Torah, but what he needed was to know where he can be found in the Torah. The Torah becomes beautiful and uplifting when it’s relevant and personal. We must do what we can to find our personal passion and connection in Torah, and help others to do the same. 4. The Rebbe once pointed out that even before Avner did teshuva, the Torah referred to him as “Reb” Avner. (Sicha of Haazinu 5742.) Perhaps the message here is similar to what we discussed last week regarding the “makal.” Instead of berating Avner for his sins, the Ramban focused on who he really is. We may have a negative self-image, but through the Torah’s lens, we can always see the “Reb” within the rebel. 5. Avner gave up all he had in order to do teshuva. Let’s not underestimate our determination and willingness to change and become better even giving up materialistic attachments. 6. Avner’s posuk is number 26, the numerical value of Hashem’s name, and it’s in chapter 32, which spells “lev,” heart. Perhaps this captures the true, Torahdikeh approach: A. Hashem always loves us. B. We always have a piece of Hashem in our heart. C. The love we show a fellow Yid opens their heart to learning about Hashem. May we be zocheh to do our part and may all Yidden be zocheh to have yiddishe, chassidishe nachas from all their children, and together greet Moshiach tzidkeinu very soon. Gut Yom Tov, Gut Yuhr, Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier