Courtesy: Admiel Kosman

This Hasidic tale concerns a man who rushes around, tending to his business, until he is interrupted. In his unforgettable book, Antoine de Saint Exupery (1900-1944) writes about the visit of the Little Prince to the fourth planet, which “belongs” to a businessman. This businessman spends his entire day taking stock of his property and is so preoccupied that when the Little Prince appears, he doesn’t even lift his head. The Little Prince hears him counting: “Then that makes five-hundred-and-one-million, six-hundred-twenty-two-thousand, seven-hundred-thirty-one …”

“Five hundred million what?” asks the Little Prince.

“Eh? Are you still there? Five hundred and one million, I can’t stop … I have so much to do! I am concerned with matters of consequence. I don’t amuse myself with balderdash,” the businessman replies without looking up.

But the Little Prince does not give up. “Five hundred-and-one million what?” he persists.

At this point, the businessman realizes there is no hope of being left in peace until he answers the question. It turns out he is counting the stars.

“And what do you do with these stars?” the Little Prince asks.

“Nothing,” says the businessman. “I own them.”

“And what good does it do you to own the stars?” the Little Prince asks in wonder.

“It does me the good of making me rich,” comes the reply.

“And what good does it do you to be rich?” the Little Prince continues.

“It makes it possible for me to buy more stars, if any are ever discovered,” says the businessman.

Upon further questioning, the Little Prince discovers that the businessman “administers” these stars and claims to “own” them by dint of the fact that nobody else ever thought of owning them. He counts them, writes down the number of stars on a little paper and “puts them in the bank.”

But the Little Prince does not think like adults. He explains his outlook to the businessman: “I myself own a flower, which I water every day. I own three volcanoes, which I clean out every week. … It is of some use to my flower, that I own them. But you are of no use to the stars.”

Saint Exupery’s wonderful book has been endlessly written about and interpreted, but I would like to compare it to a profound Hasidic tale of which I’m sure Saint Exupery never heard, and point out the similarities and differences in the spiritual world they portray. At the heart of both stories is a man who is preoccupied with some business connected to a bank. In both, an attempt is made to shake this man out of his profound illusions concerning ownership and the relationship between man and money. Like the businessman who claims to be a practical person while the child sees he is living in a dream, the Hasidic tale is about a man rushing around, tending to his seemingly “practical” business until the rabbi interferes. In both stories, the role of the protagonist is to “wake up” the preoccupied person in an almost comic manner.

Empathy for simple folk

The Hasidic tale goes as follows: “Once Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev met a man in the marketplace who was very preoccupied with his affairs. The man had to repay a debt to the bank, but did not have the money. He ran here and there, trying to obtain loans from various people. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak stopped him and asked `Vus machst du?’ (`How are you?’) The man replied that he was busy and had no time to talk. He tried to slip away but Rabbi Levi persisted. `Iber du vus machst?’ he asked again. `Iber vus machst du?’ (`But what are you doing? What’s up?’)”

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, a legendary figure in the Hasidic movement, was born in 1740 in Hoshakov, Galicia. He rose to fame in 1785 when he was appointed rabbi of Berdichev, turning it over the years into the spiritual hub of Hasidism in Ukraine. Unlike other tales, in which Rabbi Levi Yitzhak shows empathy for simple, hard-working folks, in this one he seems to ignore the distress of the debt-ridden man. Instead of helping him solve his financial problems, he corners him and keeps him from focusing on what he is trying to do.

So what does Rabbi Levi want from this man? What is he really saying when he asks “Vus machst du?” In his adaptation of the tale, Martin Buber translates this phrase as “what are you doing?” although in Yiddish, it means “how are you?” I think there is a deeper meaning here. Levi Yitzhak, who knows very well how the man is doing externally, continues to question him, trying to alert him to the state of his inner being. By way of explanation, the narrator of the story adds: “Because everything is God’s will, as it is written, `everything is in God’s hands apart from the fear of God’ – “hakol biyedei shamayim khutz miyirat shamayim’ [Talmud Bavli, Brachot 33b]. All the trials and tribulations of earning a living are a temptation not to do one’s duty, which is to be God- fearing. Hence the rabbi asks, What is it that you do? – since fear of God is in your hands, as opposed to all earthly affairs, which are determined by God.”

The idea behind this explanation (that Buber accepts) is that Levi Yitzhak wants to help the man extricate himself from his troubles, but because the source of the trouble is not the bank debt, but a spiritual debt, Yitzhak Levi badgers him in order to awaken him to that reality. The bank debt is thus a kind of “cover-up” for an internal debt. The man’s external problems are an illusion. They are a kind of bad dream that drags him into preoccupation with the externals of life. He fails to realize that only by looking inward will he get to the root of the problem.

Opening someone’s eyes through nagging questions is also typical of the Little Prince. He shows the businessman that his egocentric preoccupation with amassing property, to which he attributes his self-worth as a rich man, is the source of error in the adult world. When something belongs to me, says the Little Prince, the idea is not for the object to glorify my name, but for it to become a subject that I “water” and care for.

Devil and divinity

The Saint Exupery story helps to round out the Hasidic tale: Levi Yitzhak tries to rouse the man from his nightmare of financial distress by asking him an existential question: And what about you? Where are you in this dream that has swept you up? Only when the “businessman” comes to terms with his fixation and realizes that he is not amassing anything tangible, but simply becoming a slave to his “property,” can he break free and become a giver rather than a taker.

Only by being a giver, like the Little Prince, with his concern for his flower’s good, can man become truly creative. In becoming creative, man resembles God and fulfils his mission. This is not to say that life stops being problematic. But the troubles that the man perceives as sent by the devil suddenly become a kind of divine intervention that forces man to look inside himself, liberating him and giving him the ability to make choices, exercise creativity and become a giver.

There is no “happy end” in either story. But unlike the gentle, sensitive boy versus the close-minded adult – and there is no question with whom the reader sides (even if we are all “businessmen,” we love to see ourselves as the little boy) – the Hasidic tale is much more complex, not to mention disconcerting. The whole balance is different. We feel a lot more empathy for the distraught man than for the “nudnik” rabbi, who instead of helping, preaches to him and basically gets in his way. Buber, finding this aspect of the story disturbing, adds a few words to accentuate the man’s total obsession with his business – transforming it into a virtual clone of “The Little Prince.”

But it is precisely here, I think, that the great power of the Hasidic story lies. It does not pander to the reader. It provokes us in the same way that Levi Yitzhak provokes the man in the market. In the final analysis, however, each story teaches in its own way that the problems we encounter in our lives are the result of complications arising from not being sufficiently “god-fearing.” We busy ourselves with external obligations, allowing ourselves to be swept up in borrowed ideas and social conformity, while ignoring our own inner voice.