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A lion always remains a lion

Friday, 3 July, 2020 - 3:37 am

In an interview with Natan Sharansky, he described an interaction that took place in the Soviet interrogation room: “I sat in front of these poker-faced interrogators and told them a joke about communism and the communist rule – it was a funny joke. When I finished laughing, the interrogator said to me: ‘Don’t forget that you’re still not free.’ I laughed and said to him: ‘Look, I told a joke – a funny one. You made an effort not to laugh because you are forbidden to laugh about yourself and about communism, whereas I not only told the joke, but laughed as well. So tell me, please, which one of us is freer? You or I?’”

I was reminded of this when I learned the Rebbe’s commentary on the blessing Bilam gave the Jewish People against his will: “[Israel] crouched and lay down like a lion and like a lion cub.” He calls the Jewish People a lion, because a lion, even when it is lying down, is still a lion. There is a Halacha in the Shulchan Aruch, in the laws of damages, that a person who owns a lion is liable for any damage the lion does, even if it is trained and domesticated. The reason for this is that even if a lion is trained and domesticated, no person can really have full control over it, because a lion remains a lion.

The Rebbe explains that Bilam is speaking of the time when we are still in exile. The situation does not allow us to be a “free” lion that can walk and run, eat and drink and live its life as it would like to. It’s rather like being a Torah-observant Jew in the Soviet Union, which meant living in constant danger. Bilam, in his prophecy, said that this people, the Jewish People, even when it is in exile, and seems to be crouching and laying down, is still a lion. Even then, no one has any real control over its spiritual freedom, its soul. Because a lion remains a lion.

So the next time you say to yourself: I want to but I can’t because it’s hard, because someone’s making it difficult, because it’s impossible – remember that 3300 years ago already a non-Jewish prophet said, “[He] crouched and lay down like a lion,” And a lion always remains a lion.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalmen Wishedski

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