I heard this great story from Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein. It’s hilarious, it’s moving – and it’s very, very powerful. More importantly, it encapsulates our goals for Rosh Hashana.
There’s this fellow in Israel, he’s not a religious man, and he’s got a really strange way of making a living – he’s a car thief. That’s right, he’s a professional, full-time, car thief. That’s how he pays the rent, and that’s how he supports his family. I don’t know how many cars a week he needs to steal, but whatever that number is – he does it, and he has never got caught.
One day, he breaks into a car in – of all places! – Bnei Brak. He does what he needs to do to get into the car, sits in the driver’s seat, and he’s about to jump start the car and drive off – when suddenly he hears a baby crying in the back seat. It was a blistering hot day, and the parents had left their baby in the back of the car. They forgot the baby in the car. He turns around, he sees the baby, and the baby is hardly breathing – it’s purple in the face. Obviously, the baby is in great danger.
So, what does he do? If it was the United States of America, and some random car thief is stealing your car – if he sees a baby in the back seat, he’ll hightail it out of there, and find another car, right? But this is a Jewish car thief, in Israel! He says, OMG, there’s a baby in the car that’s in danger. The baby’s dying. I’ve got to do something, and I’ve got to do it now! He quickly hotwires the car, the car starts, and he zooms to the nearest hospital. He brings the baby into the ER, they bring out a team of nurses and doctors, and they try to revive the baby. Thank God, after a few minutes, the baby’s totally fine.
After about 45 minutes or an hour, they come out to where the car thief is sitting, in the waiting room, and they tell him: “Baruch Hashem, your baby is going to be fine. But here’s some of the things we want to tell you about, so you know how to take care for the baby as time goes on.” The guy is lost for words. “It’s not my baby,” he stammers. They look at him as if he’s nuts. “What do you mean it’s not your baby? Who’s baby is it?”
He’s thinking on his feet. He needs to make up a story so that he doesn’t get arrested. So he says, “I went past this car, I saw a baby in distress in the back seat – and in the army I learnt how to get into a locked car and how to jump-start a car. I opened up the car and I started it, and I rushed to the nearest hospital – and I did it so that I could save the baby’s life. But: I’m not the baby’s parent or relative – I’m just a random guy off the street.”
The hospital staff don’t know what to do. Who does the car belong to? Who does the baby belong to? The car thief says: “I have an idea – let me go to the car and see if there’s any information there.” He runs back to the car, and he finds the insurance card, with all the information about the owner. They look up the number, and the hospital staff call the people – and the people are crying on the phone. They don’t know where their baby is – they are sure their baby died or was kidnapped. They realized the baby was left in the car, and they are panicking.
A few minutes later they run into the hospital, and the hospital staff tell them – there’s the man who saved your baby, he’s a very wonderful man. He brought the baby to the hospital. Baruch Hashem, because he brought the baby, the baby’s fine.
“Which guy? What are you talking about?” The hospital staff point out the car thief. This is a true story, it’s totally nuts! And it gets nuttier.
The parents run over to the man – and they hug him, and they kiss him. “You’re such a tzaddik, you saved our baby’s life, you’re a model human being.”
He says to them, “No, no, I did what any person would do!”
“Nonsense,” they insist, “you are a hero, we want to give you a reward!”
“Reward? Definitely not! I don’t need a reward – I refuse to take anything from you! I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew, and that’s why I did it.” So ironic. He was going to steal their car, but now he wouldn’t take a penny from them.
They wouldn’t let him go. At least, if you won’t take the reward, they said, then come to us for Shabbes. We won’t take no for an answer. Just to get away from the hospital, and from this nightmare, he agreed.
So, the next Shabbes he comes to their apartment in Bnei Brak for Shabbes. He arrives Friday afternoon. Comes Friday night, he had no idea: they’d invited the entire neighborhood to their home to a celebration especially to thank him. It’s like a Sholom Zochor on steroids. Off the charts.
The father stands up, gets everyone quiet – “Moreye Verabosey: this is the hero that saved our baby’s life!” And they’re all talking to him and thanking him.
Somehow, he gets through Friday night. The next day, Shabbes, he goes to shul – they’ve put on a massive kiddush in his honor. The rabbi speaks, and in front of everyone, he tells the car thief what a tzaddik he is. You saved the baby’s life!
By this time, the thief wants the ground to open underneath him and swallow him up, like Korach! It’s a complete nightmare!
Then, before Shabbes goes out, the father of the baby tells him: “Listen, I want to take you to see my Rebbe. He’s a massive Rebbe, and he wants to meet you.”
“Give me a break, I just want to go home!”
“No, no, he says he needs to meet you.”
Shabbes goes out, and they go to the Rebbe. Crowds of chasidim have gathered to witness the man who saved the baby going to meet the Rebbe. He’s whisked inside to see the Rebbe.
Finally, the thief has had enough. He says to father, “Please, can you leave me alone with the grand rabbi for a few minutes.”
The father goes out, and the thief looks at the Rebbe. And he lets it all out. “Rabbi, this whole thing is a mistake! I’m not a hero, I’m a thief.” And he tells the Rebbe the whole story. He’s crying. “Rabbi, please help me, I don’t know what’s going on over here. I don’t know what to do anymore. You’ve got to help me out!”
The Rebbe is quiet – he strokes his beard, and he closes his eyes.
“You’re a thief?” he asks.
“And you saved the baby’s life?”
The Rebbe bangs on the table. “Do you know what you are? You are a true tzaddik! Saving a life is one of the holiest things anyone can ever do! I’ve lived my whole life, and I’m an old man – and I’ve never saved a baby’s life! And you – a thief – you saved this baby’s life. Which means you must have done something special in your life, and God wanted you to know you’re a tzaddik. You have a very low opinion of yourself, but really you must be special. What have you done in your life that is so special that God thinks you are worthy of saving a baby’s life?”
“What do you mean? I’m a thief. I steal cars. I’m not a good person, I’m a bad person. I never do anything good!”
“No!” The Rebbe is adamant. “Think harder!”
He thinks and he thinks. Suddenly, something comes to mind. “There’s this one thing that I do. Maybe it’s a good thing.”
“So, nu, what is it?”
The thief smiles nervously. “When I break into a car to steal it, I always rifle through the glove compartment. The insurance cards give the owner’s insurance number, but they also say what type of insurance you have. I always check the type of insurance – do they have basic liability, or do they have fire and theft comprehensive, which means that if I steal the car, they won’t be out of pocket. I don’t want some guy to be out of pocket because I stole his car. The insurance company, I don’t care – but some guy who can’t afford to lose the money, I feel bad. So, if they only have basic liability, I don’t steal the car – I go out and I find another car.”
The Rebbe sighs. “You see, my friend – you’re a good person – you don’t want people to suffer. Hashem wanted to show you that are a good person – that you don’t need to be a car thief. You can save lives. You are a lifesaver. All you need to do is realize what potential you have, and you can soar to the greatest heights. God bless you. I am so proud to have met you.” And the Rebbe stood up and shook the thief’s hand.
The thief was so taken by this encounter, and everything that happened, that he decided to change his life around – but more importantly, he decided to tell everyone his story. He became a religious Jew. He doesn’t steal cars anymore. He keeps Shabbes. He davens every day. And he is an inspiration to us all.
My friends, we may not be car thieves – but: do you know what? We all run ourselves down. We act as if what we do means that we are not tzaddikim. And guess what, that’s just us rationalizing as to why we don’t do better. We are so much more than we are ever willing to admit to ourselves.
On Rosh Hashana, in the presence of the King, and with the shul bedecked in white – we have the opportunity to look at ourselves differently. The shofar blows – piercing the air with its clarion call. It sounds like the baby crying in the back seat of the car. We turn around, and suddenly we are transformed from what we think we are to what we really are. It’s as simple as that.
God is telling us, loud and clear: you are a hero, you are a lifesaver, you do so much for others – and you need to realize what you really are and to be self-aware.
Don’t ever allow yourself to sink into a self-defeating quagmire of “I’m not a tzaddik!” Because – as Maimonides says clearly in Hilchot Teshuva, without any equivocation – everyone has the capability of being as great as Moshe Rabbeinu. Even the car thief of Bnei Brak.