My rabbi loves challenges, so he loves my halachic questions. “So, Ted,” he says, “any arcane questions today?”
We go to his office, where he keeps, in a secret drawer, his wife’s delicious plum cake.
Now that I’ve got him in a mellow mood, I begin. “Okay, here’s a tough one tailored for Yom Kippur.”
“I’m ready,” he says.
“Picture an evil man. Not a Hitler, not a Haman, not an Arafat, not a thug — just a consistent louse. This no-goodnik keeps none of the mitzvahs. He loves pork roast; he works on his lawn on the Sabbath; he drives to the neighborhood bar three times a week, including Friday night, where he takes the name of the Lord in vain for three or four hours. And if the bartender gives him change for a 20 instead of a 10, he gloats and keeps it. He cheats on his wife and on his business associates, and has no time for his kids.”
My rabbi nods. “One day,” I continue, “this ethically imperfect Jew takes a cruise with several of his fellow devils where they plan to gamble, drink, violate the Sabbath, chase women and toss around the name of the Lord like a $5 poker chip. But Rabbi — as you know — man proposes to play golf, but God disposes of sunshine and sends the storm. The cruise ship hits a Caribbean iceberg… okay, another ship. Our sinner is shipwrecked. For one year he sits on a rock pile and exists on raw fish as his entree and palm leaves for salad. He can’t even make a fire. He mistreats nobody, since there’s nobody to mistreat. He cheats not on his wife, since there’s no one to cheat with. He doesn’t even curse. What fun is it? Who’s to hear?
“He keeps Sabbath; no car, no fire, no TV. He doesn’t muzzle his ox, since he has no ox. He doesn’t sow his field with two kinds of seeds, since he has no seeds, no fields.
“Our ex-unethical thug, as Yom Kippur rolls around, is now a tzadik. So, here’s my question: Is he inscribed in the Book of Life? Does he get a gold star from the judge of all mankind, even though his past record is as crummy as stale pound cake? And please, Rabbi, don’t tell me that nothing has changed, that he’s still propelled by an evil heart, because you explained late one night, remember, that Judaism is a religion of deeds, not intentions. Nobody has a pure heart; it’s how we control those evil inclinations that spring from our human heart. That’s what counts. Action. So, Rabbi, what’s your answer? Has our protagonist redeemed himself?” Dear Reader, why don’t you ask your rabbi?
Ted Roberts is a writer living in Huntsville, Ala.