Rebbe Nachman tells a story about a busy marketplace in a European shtetyl (Jewish village) on Friday morning, when everyone is feverishly preparing for the fast-approaching Sabbath.
More than a dozen women are clamoring around the fishmonger, each trying to purchase a fresh carp for the Sabbath. The fishmonger and his helper can barely manage while trying to clean and scale the fresh fish and deal with all the yelling ladies prodding them to hurry up. Right in the middle of the Friday mid-morning chaos, a stranger runs by the fish stand, and waves a tightly closed fist, as if he had the Hope Diamond in his clasp. He yelled out to everyone, "Hey, nobody knows what I've got in my hand - and nobody will know, because I won't show you!" He then ran away.
The fishmonger's helper threw down his knife and ran outside, chasing the stranger. "Hey Mister, stop! You gotta show me what you have!" The ladies were curious too, so that started running after the fishmonger's helper. The poor fishmonger, in desperation, started chasing his helper and the ladies. What bedlam! He didn't know who paid and who didn't, and whose fish he was cleaning; and Shabbat is only a few hours away...
The stranger ran into the butcher shop. There, about twenty or so ladies were waiting in line while the shochet (ritual slaughterer) slaughtered the squawking chickens and the butcher's helper plucked feathers. What a sight! Chickens squawking, feathers flying, and two dozen ladies arguing about who's next in line. The butcher was trying valiantly to accommodate everyone, and cut up their chickens like they each requested, and his knife was a lot faster than any eye could follow. Now, amidst all the Friday-morning butcher-shop pandemonium, the stranger yells out to everyone, "Hey, nobody knows what I've got in my hand - and nobody will know, because I won't show you!" He then escaped into the market's main street.
With a half-feathered limp and lifeless chicken in hand, the butcher's helper left his erev-Shabbat battle station, ran out into the street in hot pursuit of the stranger, shouting, "Hey Mister, wait a minute! You gotta show me what you have!" The chicken-purchasing ladies were curious too, so that started running after the butcher's helper.
What a balagan (Hebrew slang for hullabaloo)! The stranger, now being chased by the fishmonger's helper, the butcher's helper, about fifty screaming ladies and with children, dogs and cats joining the crowd, looked over his shoulder and teased the crowd with a cynic guffaw, "You'll never find out what I have in my hand!"
Soon, the greengrocers and their customers, the dry-goods merchants and their customers, the peddlers, the bakers, the candle-makers and almost everyone else in the area were all chasing after the stranger. The whole shtetyl, more than a thousand people, were gasping for breath trying to catch up with the swift-footed stranger.
When the stranger looked over his shoulder once more, he smiled a toothy and sadistic smile. Everyone had forgotten about Shabbat preparations. Not a single woman remembered that she only had five short hours to bake her challas, prepare her gefilte fish, and cook her chicken. The market was emptied and unattended. The townspeople were in an uproar.
The stranger stopped in his tracks, turned around and faced the crowd. "Now, I can show you what's in my hand!" He opened his fist and showed them an empty hand. "The joke's on you, you foolish nincompoops!" More than satisfied with a job well done, he disappeared into thin air...
* * *
I'm sure that by now, you realize that the stranger in Rebbe Nachman's tale who caused all the chaos was the Samech-mem, the Evil Inclination. He's still in our midst, convincing us that he has something valuable in his empty hand. He's still trying to make us forget our main mission in life and to waste our time chasing things of absolutely no consequence.
Today, the Evil Inclination's empty hand are the newspapers, the hourly news broadcasts, the news websites and all the current events and op-ed blogs. Ask yourself how much time you spend daily listening and gleaning the news, which is 87% conjecture, speculation and opinion at best and oftentimes outright inaccuracies and deliberately misleading hogwash. An hour? 45 minutes if you're really time thrifty? More?
A person could learn Daf Yomi with Rashi in 45 minutes a day. At the end of seven years of listening to the news, you walk away as an empty-handed frier (Hebrew slang for "sucker") with a lot of needless worry and anxiety. Hashem makes the news anyway, so why worry?
But, after seven years of Daf Yomi - daily Gemara study - you walk away with the entire Talmud under your belt, a healthy soul, and a ticket to Gan Eden.
Let's stop running after the empty-handed fool right now. We can if we want, and Hashem will be delighted to help us.
* * *
We invite you to visit Rabbi Lazer Brody’s award-winning daily web journal Lazer Beams.