By Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
Between the 1910s and the 1950s, Abner “Longy” Zwillman was among the most prominent, and most feared, Jewish mob bosses in America, controlling the city of Newark, New Jersey, with an iron fist. As much as we’d love to pretend that it wasn’t the case, Jews — known as the Jewish Mafia — were heavily involved in organized crime; in 1921, 20% of all prisoners in New York jails were Jewish! Longy Zwillman was known as the “Al Capone of New Jersey,” who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted or what he felt was owed to him — but he was still sensitive to certain aspects of his Jewish roots. When his good friend, the boxer Hymie Kugel, passed away, Zwillman stood outside the chapel. Jerry Kugel, Hymie’s son, couldn’t understand this slight and asked Longy why he wouldn’t go in and pay his respects. “I can’t, Jerry. I’m a Kohen.” (Kohanim, Jewish priests, are forbidden to be in the same room as a corpse.) While it may seem comical that the person who ordered and likely participated in the deaths of hundreds of people, refused to come in contact with a corpse, I think there is precedent for this kind of behavior. We find it in connection with the man who may have been the very first gangster ever recorded: Esav (Esau).
Our sages tell us that Esau was totally dedicated to immoral behavior. A hunter by profession, he was described as someone who murdered with impunity, engaged in idol worship and partook of forbidden foods and relationships. At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, Isaac and Rebecca’s prayers for a child are finally answered and she becomes pregnant with twins. The Torah tells us that Rebecca suffered an extremely difficult pregnancy; a Midrashic comment relates she felt kicking whenever she passed a place of Torah study, but also whenever she passed a place of idol worship. Faced with extreme confusion, she went to a man of God to explain her situation. God responded, “You have two nations in your womb that will part ways from you.”
How could this be a comforting answer for Rebecca? Knowing that she will have two children, one of whom was pure and righteous and the other of whom was idolatrous and evil — that was supposed to calm her down?
The great Chassidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Pshischa offers a simple answer: Rebecca did not know she was having twins! There was no ultrasound technology in those days. What she was worried about was that the same child that desperately wanted to study Torah also had an insatiable desire to worship idols. Such a child, with such inconsistent and confusing religious behavior, was one she had difficulty accepting. When she was told she was carrying two children, she felt a sense of relief. She could deal with two children who had different personalities and proclivities, or at least she understood the challenge she faced.
The Rebbe R’ Bunim explained further that the struggle Rivka thought her child was experiencing is the struggle all of us experience — the pull between our best and worst selves. In Chassidic thought, particularly in the masterwork the Tanya by Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidus, this struggle is described as the battle between one’s animal soul and one’s divine soul. That’s how you can end up with a Longy Zwillman, who murders yet won’t enter a funeral parlor. Most of us will not experience these two dramatic extremes — at least, we hope not. But all of us experience this tension in some form. What is the antidote? Remember that Rebecca couldn’t accept that her child might be so inconsistent — that one moment he would be in the Beit Midrash, the next moment mired in sin. It is consistency — building positive spiritual habits by integrating your successes into your routine — that is the best antidote to this kind of tension. May we all achieve lives of positive consistency and always be on our best behavior!
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky serves Congregation Shaare Tefilla.