Friday, July 29, 2011

Haftara Massei: The Lousy Trade

John was a wealthy merchant who had built up a successful business through hard work and a sharp eye for profitable deals.

One day John's sister asked if he could bring her son into the business and "show him the ropes."

John agreed - a decision he would come to regret. The young man had absolutely no business sense.

John sent him on his first business trip with $10,000 and advice to buy some useful merchandise to sell in the local market. The young man returned with a huge shipment of toothpicks. He had spent the entire sum on a hundred thousand boxes of toothpicks!

John was incredulous. "What were you thinking? In seventy years, we will not be able to sell all of these toothpicks! What am I supposed to do with a hundred thousand boxes of toothpicks?"

John put the toothpicks in storage, and used his nephew for deliveries and odd jobs around the office. This went on for several months, until John got a call from his sister.

"Please give my son a second chance," she pleaded. "Everyone makes mistakes."

Against his better judgment, John sent his nephew on another business trip, armed with a second check for $10,000 and a second piece of advice: "Don't buy any more toothpicks!"

The young man went out on his second trip, eager to find merchandise more valuable than toothpicks. It was a month before Rosh Hashanah, and he came across a merchant selling a huge lot of shofars (ram's horns). "This is certainly a very important item," thought the young man. He bought the entire lot for $10,000.

John was incredulous when he saw his nephew return with hundreds of boxes of shofars. "Even if you succeed in selling a shofar to each synagogue in the country, they only need one," he groaned. "We now have enough shofars to last until the great shofar of the mashiach!"

John sent his nephew back to office chores, and scratched his head what to do with all of his new merchandise that was crowding his warehouse. In the end he approached a talented trader who sometimes worked with him. He offered the trader a fat fee if he could find someone willing to take the toothpicks off his hands in exchange for some other merchandise. John then went to a second trader and offered him a similar deal, this time for someone willing to buy the huge lot of shofars.

The inevitable happened. After a few weeks, both traders contacted him, proudly announcing that they had found someone willing to buy the merchandise. The trader for the toothpicks had picked up a huge lot of shofars, and the trader for the shofars had picked up thousands of boxes of toothpicks....

When John's nephew heard about the deals that the traders had made, he approached his uncle. "Why were you so upset with me? Even your highly experienced traders didn't do any better than I did. They also came back with toothpicks and shofars!"

At this point, John lost his temper. "Fool! They had lousy merchandise to start with. It's no wonder they didn't do any better. But you! I gave you cash. You could have bought whatever you wanted with that money. But instead you bought toothpicks and ram's horns..."

Jeremiah's Rebuke

This is exactly what the prophet told the Jewish people.

"Did a nation ever exchange its gods, and they are not gods" (Jer. 2:11).  Did you ever see a people exchange their idols for other set of idols? And even if they did do this, it would be a fair trade, since one idol is no better than the other.

"Yet My people have exchanged their glory with that which is useless." The Jewish people have exchanged their honor and pride - service of the true God - with useless idols made of wood and stone.

And these wooden idols cannot even be used for toothpicks, since we are forbidden to derive any benefit for idolatrous objects....

(Adapted from Mayana shel Torah, pp. 158-159)