The Turkey Prince
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein | May 12, 2017
“‘When they go out into the outer court where the people are, they are to take off the clothes they have been ministering in and are to leave them in the sacred rooms, and put on other clothes, so that the people are not consecrated through contact with their garments.'” — Ezekiel 44:19
The Torah portion for this week is Emor, which means “speak,” from Leviticus 21:1–24:23, and the Haftorah is from Ezekiel 44:15–31.
The Turkey Prince is a Jewish tale told by Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in the 18th century. The story is about a prince who goes insane believing that he is a turkey. He takes off his clothing, sits under the table, and eats crumbs off the floor. The king and queen are horrified. Many try to heal their son, but none are successful until one day when a wise man comes to town and says that he can heal the prince.
This man takes off his own clothing and sits together with the prince on the floor, claiming to be a turkey, too. Gradually, the prince accepts the man as a friend and trusts him. The wise man then suggests to the prince that turkeys can also wear clothing and eat at a table. Step by step, the wise man is able to get the prince to act normally until the prince is completely cured.
One explanation of Rabbi Nachman’s story teaches that the prince represents those who have rejected God’s Word and behave more like animals than like human beings created in the image of God. The wise man teaches us how to restore these souls to their holy essence. Not by scolding them or rejecting them, but by meeting them where they are and embracing them with love. Once a connection is made, steps can be taken toward healthy change.
In this week’s Haftorah reading, we read about the service of the priests in the Holy Temple, just as we did in the Torah reading. In the description of their service, we come across this instruction: “ When they go out into the outer court where the people are, they are to take off the clothes they have been ministering in and are to leave them in the sacred rooms, and put on other clothes . . .”
The Jewish sages ask why the priests are commanded both to leave their sacred garments behind and also to “put on other clothing.” Surely it would have been enough to tell the priests to leave the sacred clothing behind. Wouldn’t it be obvious that they needed to put on other clothing before they went out in public?
The sages explain that the Scripture is emphasizing the need to put on these “other clothing.” What kind of clothing? The clothing of regular people. Like Rabbi Nachman’s story, this verse is teaching us that when we want to inspire other people, we need to approach them on a level on which they can relate. We need to reach out to others with love, friendship, and camaraderie; only then can we hope to inspire them to put on holy garments and take on behaviors of godly people.