The Atheist in the Foxhole
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
Friday is my busiest day, especially since we changed the clock. Last Friday I received a call from someone who needed to talk. It was a stranger who had been recommended to me by a local therapist. I suggested some possible times for a meeting – Saturday night, Monday afternoon but the man insisted: “It has to be today; I need to talk!” At 12:30 Friday afternoon we met in my home. A nice, robust, obviously intelligent man walked in. We made some small talk, but then I rushed to ask him to tell me a little about himself and explain how I might be able to help him. He introduced himself as an atheist. Not just an amateur atheist, but a professional disbeliever. He teaches atheism, he has written books on atheism, and he leads his life accordingly. “So why am I coming to see a Rabbi?” A while ago he had experienced some pain in his side. It was the beginning of a nightmare. Two days earlier he had been diagnosed with a probable case of pancreatic cancer. That is a very bad diagnosis. It was fifty-fifty - only surgery could tell. He looked at me from the depth of his neshama and said, “I am the atheist in the foxhole you have been hearing about all your life!”
I remembered a Zohar. When G-d evicted Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, He stationed an Angel at the gate of the Garden with a “revolving, flaming sword.” Why was the sword revolving? The Zohar comments that man’s disposition revolves. Every person to some extent is a spiritual schizophrenic. It is this schizophrenia that is the basis of Teshuvah.
Every human being has both a righteous personality and a sinful personality. Behind every rasha hides a dormant tzadik. Were this not so, teshuvah would be impossible. Because a person is composed of these two personalities, he can bring out the righteous individual within himself and subdue his evil inclination. Although this requires unusual strength – it is possible.
The man was crying. He was scared, confused and embarrassed. I told him that with his permission I would prefer to discuss not issues of faith, but rather issues of character. I asked him if he could be humble enough to find somewhere, amongst all the academic conclusions that he had ever drawn, the possibility of a five per cent window of error. After some thought he responded, “Of course, Rabbi, there is a five percent window of error.” “If that is so,” I advised him, “forget about the other ninety five percent and pray through that little five percent opening to the Heavens.” I took out a Tehilim and we davened together.
Hashem decided to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorra. Abraham challenged G-d, “Far be it for You to act in this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked … will the Judge of the earth not practice justice?”
Chazal explain that Abraham’s original argument did not revolve around one hundred men or fifty men or ten. It dealt with every man and women living in Sodom . They must all have a little window for Teshuvah. You created them to revolve. Let us bring out the good and the tzadik in them and not destroy them. “Habeit LaTov – V’al tephen Layetzer” . Seek out their good; not their evil!
The Torah does not tell us this story to teach us how irreparably bad the Sodomites were. The story is told to teach us how a descendant of Abraham must react. When someone seems so evil – let them revolve. Look deeper. Human nature has us disqualifying our friends, , relatives, partners and even our spouses and children beyond repair. Life can get pretty lonely when no one is left. There is a hidden side to people with faults, a side that needs to be located, polished and loved. G-d blesses us with community, friends, and family. We need to follow in the footsteps of Abraham to realize that blessing. When you search deeply it is amazing what you will find – even where you least expect it.
Let them revolve.
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