A Coat with Two Pockets

A well-known Polish leader of early Chasidut named Rabbi Simcha Bunim said the following famous words: “In every coat there should be two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper that reads, ‘For my sake was the world created (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5).’ In the other should be a piece of paper that reads, ‘I am only dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27).'” Some link this learning to the current Torah portion, Metzorah, in which we learn that someone stricken with leprosy can be cleansed with an offering that includes, among other items, a stick of cedar-wood and a branch of hyssop.

Leviticus 14:4:

וְצִוָּה֙ הַכֹּהֵ֔ן וְלָקַ֧ח לַמִּטַּהֵ֛ר שְׁתֵּֽי־צִפֳּרִ֥ים חַיּ֖וֹת טְהֹר֑וֹת וְעֵ֣ץ אֶ֔רֶז וּשְׁנִ֥י תוֹלַ֖עַת וְאֵזֹֽב׃

Then shall the priest command to take for him that is to be cleansed two living clean birds, and cedar-wood, and scarlet, and hyssop.

Why should the offering include both the cedar and the hyssop? Since both give off an incense-like scent, isn’t this overkill? Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s interpretation is that in order for the cleansing power of the sacrifice to take place, both pride (rigid cedar) and humility (the bending branch of hyssop) are required in equal measures. What does it mean to live with both of these messages in our pockets?

I was given a similar piece of advice as a 19 year old camp counselor when, mid-summer and deprived of sleep, I approached the camp director to tender my resignation – I was overwhelmed, and didn’t think I could physically or emotionally make it through the rest of the camp season. I was at low point. He suggested that I rest and sleep (which might have been the most important piece of advice), but then shared words that have remained with me through every professional setting I’ve worked in since.

He said, “when you are at camp, pretend you have a piece of paper in each pocket. In one pocket, there is a piece of paper that says, ‘camp is the most important Jewish experience of this young camper’s life.’ In the other is a piece of paper that says, ‘it’s just camp.’

I remained at camp that summer, thank goodness, and in fact that camp (Ramah Darom) became such a central part of my young adulthood that I was married there.

I used to look at these words as an indication that we should strive to find a moderate middle road, one of balance. These days, however, I recognize that life isn’t like that – it is in fact filled with extremes, ups and downs and everything in between, and it is meant to be dynamic. Now I understand the advice as helping us move through the ups with an appropriate degree of humility and through the downs with a sense of purpose and strength. It isn’t about living life as if you are on a moving walkway. It is about living fully and meaningfully, which means being present on the roller coaster, and just remembering that taking a moment to check what is written in your pockets can help you move forward proactively, purposefully and mindfully.

I encourage you to think about the messages you carry in your own pockets, and whether or not you need to edit or revise them.

Shabbat Shalom,