Once upon a time, there was a man who owned a donkey. He would offer a ride on his donkey to those who were looking to cross the hot desert. One day, a man purchased this service and the customer, the owner and the donkey took off across the desert. After a few hours, the customer who was riding on the donkey decided he wanted to take a break. So, he dismounted and, seeing that the donkey cast a nice shadow, sat down in the shade of the animal.
The owner of the donkey was not pleased at this, as he now had to sit in the blazing sun and wait, while the other one napped comfortably. The owner decided that he wanted the shade of the donkey – after all, it was his donkey! So, waiting until the customer fell asleep, the owner moved his donkey a few feet over and sat down in the shade of his donkey, which left his customer burning in the hot sun.
Sensing the heat that was now barreling down on him, the customer woke up and yelled, “How dare you. I paid for this donkey.” To which the owner replied, “You paid for the donkey, but not the donkey’s shadow. If you want the shadow as well, you will have to pay more.”
The two men began to argue and the argument got so heated that the owner of the donkey slapped the customer. The customer slapped him back and they began to fight. The fighting got so loud that the donkey became frightened and ran off leaving the man and the customer with no donkey and no shade. The two men sat in the burning sun and suffered – all because they were fighting over a shadow. And in the end, their argument left them both with nothing.
Isn’t that the way it goes with arguments? Usually, it is over something small, nitpicky and not very important. But then the ego gets involved, and the littlest issue gets blown way out of proportion … and next thing you know, both sides are left with nothing! Even if it is only one ego, it can still be enough to cause total chaos. And even when it isn’t over something small, even when it is over something big and important, when we let anger and ego lead the way, everything really is lost.
In fact, it’s when anger and ego lead the way, that we usually become susceptible to the most dangerous thought of all: I can only win if the other person loses. It’s a dangerous thought, because it’s a very slippery slope that leads us to believe that we need to push the other person down, in order to become the winner.
This story comes to remind us that we are all interconnected, and we need to help each other. If we focus only on winning, only on what we ourselves want, only on our own ego’s need, only on justifying ourselves and proving that we are right – then we wind up all losing.
The Hebrew calendar tells us that we are currently in the month of Cheshvan, which our sages have called “mar Cheshvan” which literally means bitter Cheshvan. The tradition tells us that this is because this is the one month when there are no holidays. It is almost as if, after all the high holy days, we are now given a chance to see how we apply all of our great new year resolutions.
It is one thing to pray for forgiveness and blessing inside the synagogue, it is another to be forced to make change in moments of darkness, bitterness and acrimony. In the moments of challenge, one can discern the true tests of character. From a spiritual perspective, the greatest of wins is not that of the individual ego, it is that of tikkun olam (the healing of the world).
The rabbis explain that this is why the Torah commands us: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, justice shall you pursue. The medieval commentator Rashi says: The word justice is repeated twice to say – justice for you and justice for me. It isn’t justice if it is only just for one party. Justice requires moving beyond the ego’s need to be right and the other person to be wrong.
This is true for governments and political parties, organizations and communities; and this is also true for us, in our own relationships. Too often, we get so caught up in being right, that we lose sight of the larger relationship or context.
In an argument, it can be hard to not react, when our ego gets wounded. But the Torah wants us to learn how to work together, to make peace, to listen – not with our minds, but with our hearts. The real spiritual task is to find a way to feel compassion for one another, even in the midst of our differences – this is the only way to move beyond a stalemate.
This is the month of Cheshvan, when we see the fruits of our spiritual practice. May we remember that we are all part of the same Unity that we recite in the Shma. May we remember that the only way to resolve anything is: V’ahavta. Love. Compassion. To learn to listen with our heart.
This is how we will make tzedek, tzedek (justice! justice!): this is how we can make it right for everyone. When we stop blaming each other, pointing fingers, and letting our anger, fears and egos lead us… if we could do that, if we could just learn to reach out to each other – maybe we will find that heaven is right here, almost within our reach.
May this be the month when we learn how to let go of the illusions of the ego, the desire for power that ultimately makes us so blind that we can’t see G!d, the fears that ultimately become self-fulfilling prophecies. May this be the time when we can learn to listen with our heart to one another, and to recognize that we are all One.