Straw man saves the day
The holy students of the Mezeritcher Maggid were studying Torah late one night when their rebbe suddenly entered. “Stop learning and begin saying Tehillim,” he instructed them. “There’s a Jew in a life-threatening situation who has committed to doing teshuva if he is saved. We must do whatever we can.” They of course did as instructed, and the episode was soon forgotten.
Several years later, one of those students traveled out of town and overheard a man tell a story in shul:
“When I was a young man, I left the path of Yiddishkeit and began a career as a horse thief. One day I noticed a farmer with particularly strong, healthy horses. One night, I stealthily crept into the stable and began wrapping the horses’ feet with cloth to muffle their sound. What I didn’t realize was that a worker had been sleeping on the roof of the stable. He awoke from my rustling and, frightened, ran in his pajamas to wake the owner and the neighbors. I heard them gather around the stable, planning to attack. I was scared to death and my life flashed before my eyes. How foolish I had been to leave the path of Yiddishkeit and waste my years! I made a firm resolution that if Hashem would help me escape, I’d do teshuva and start living like a Jew. Suddenly an idea came to me. I saw the worker’s day clothes lying in a pile on the floor. I filled them with straw, forming an effigy, propped it on the back of one of the horses, opened the stable door and gave the horse a powerful whip, causing him to tear off with a mighty neigh. The mob chased after the ‘thief’ and I was able to slip away to safety and pursue a Torah life.”
The Maggid’s student inquired about the timing of the episode and realized that indeed their prayers had been answered.
Often, especially during the month of Elul, we think about changing ourselves for the better but quickly become disheartened. “There’s no use in trying to change,” we conclude, “This is just who I am.”
But that’s an inaccurate self-evaluation. The essence of teshuva involves separating my true self from my external one. A Jew’s core is pure and always good which should lead us to conclude that any negative behaviors I’ve come to associate with are not the real me.
The yetzer hora is sometimes referred to as straw: “And the house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau shall become straw.” It may spread itself all over us, but a single spark of our neshama can send it up in holy flames.
The reformed thief in our story teaches us a valuable lesson: We have the power to reset our ways.
How can we do that? A crucial element is realizing that the negative self-image we have is made entirely of straw. It’s our yetzer hora’s doing. That person may look like me to the point where even I’m convinced, but it’s a fake. If we can come to that awareness, we can let the image we have of ourselves vanish while we journey to rediscover our true selves and begin living accordingly.
By the same token, let’s be inspired to help our fellow Yid send off their straw façade and discover their true selves.
And it’s good to remember that we’re never alone. Our holy rebbes daven for us and give us strength.
May we merit very soon to see the fulfillment of the above prophecy to its completion: “And saviors shall ascend Mt. Zion to judge the mountain of Esau, and the L-rd shall have the kingdom.”
Rabbi Mordechai Lipskier
 Beis Mordechai (Miller) vol. 1, pg. 50. Printed in Haparsha Hachassidus, Parshas Shoftim.
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