The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) relates the famous story about Rabbi Yochanan and an apparent gangster! Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the river when a large impressive looking gangster came running by. Filled with tremendous strength, he jumped over the river to reach the other side. The man's name – Shimon ben Lakish – to become known as the great teacher Reish Lakish – none other than the main learning partner (Chavrusa) and brother-in-law of the man currently swimming in the river – Rabbi Yochanan!
Reish Lakish was a known bandit, gangster, gladiator and general circus entertainer. If anyone is thinking of ultimate material life – Reish Lakish was it! Blessed with a very strong, muscular body – he used it well to enjoy the "finer things" in life (which did not include much intellectual stimulus!)
Not being one to let a good moment go by – Rabbi Yochanan shouted out to the impressive looking gangster with the words, "Your strength would be better used for learning Torah." Can one imagine the insult these words must have had on the mighty gangster?! Turning back to the rabbi (an extremely good looking man,) he shouted, "…And your beauty for women!"
It was an equal dual something which both "fighters" were ready for! Rabbi Yochanan – the man known for his extreme good looks – spending his days immersed in Torah law – against Shimon ben Lakish – the town's gangster known for his promiscuity with the law. Rabbi Yochanan "insults" the strength of Reish Lakish – and Reish Lakish insults the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan. Is it ever a wonder to imagine that these two become such wonderful learning partners together?! To such a degree that Rabbi Yochanan cried over his death as he realised the loss of never having anyone to be able to raise the types of difficulties in Torah law as Reish Lakish would raise. And ultimately Rabbi Yochanan would even die as a result of his having lost his favourite learning partner!
What did Rabbi Yochanan see in this gangster?! And what ever made the gangster turn to Torah?! Rabbi Yochanan – a Tzaddik, saw only what there was to see. He saw a G-dly soul in front of him. So what that it was camouflaged in a gross material body filled with a dozen tattoos?! So what that the muscles on his arms were larger than both Rabbi Yochanan's legs put together (and Rabbi Yochanan was a BIG man!) Rabbi Yochanan could only notice the attribute of strength in the gangster. And it was to this that he focused. When used correctly even an attribute as tough as strength can bring sweetness to the world.
Seeing Reish Lakish's love for the "finer things" in life – clicking on to his language of "beauty" – Rabbi Yochanan told Shimon ben Lakish that he had a sister even more beautiful than he. In fact, he even made an offer that if Reish Lakish would make a change and use his strength for Torah – he would offer his sister as a bride for the great gangster! (Could a Torah scholar be any more foolish than this?! It his highly doubtful any Rosh Yeshiva would ever allow the sister of one of the generation's greatest Torah scholars to marry a gangster!) But then again, Rabbi Yochanan was no regular Rosh Yeshiva – he was an outstanding Tzaddik who looked to the deepest part of another human being. And it was there that he saw a holy spark of G-dliness waiting to be freed, to be awoken, to reveal itself!
As for the "gangster" – he thought the idea good too, and was "lured" into a little bit of learning. Once his soul was awoken, it did not take long for him to become the great Reish Lakish we all know about today.
The Baal Shem Tov teaches us we must learn from every single thing we see or hear that day (that moment.) Today we mourn the loss of a Jew – Yoseph ben Avraham Robinson. Shot dead near a shop that had a botched up robbery… A black man… a gangster… but a Jew! He was shot dead near a shop that had a botched up robbery…
I know nothing about his Torah learning – but from viewing the few videos available about him, it seems to me there is a spark of "Reish Lakish" here too.
Yosef was brought up as a regular non-Jewish person. His life was very much the gangster world life – though I personally know nothing at all about it. But something made him change – to throw it all away – for a little piece of Torah. Or perhaps for an entire cosmos of G-d! One looks at the picture of a refined looking Yosef and wonders what could ever have occurred to this person who just years before looked well the part of gangster! Yet the change occurred. It happened because it can happen. It happened so that we could all learn a lesson from a story such as his.
While we view skin colour and general behaviour as showing us the "true" essence of others, perhaps we should step back every now and again and become Rabbi Yochanans. Hidden inside the often very gross and material bodies of others may well lie a very G-dly spark. In fact, you'll find it in the least likely spot! But it is certainly there. In fact, the person opposite us at any one moment – no matter what they look like or how they seem to behave – may well have hidden inside them a G‑dly spark – at least as holy as ours is!
We can always watch them jumping over rivers. We can comment on their tattoos and gross behaviour. We can even shun them from society. We can all be "Roshei Yeshivas" and tell the world that they would certainly make unsuitable Shidduchim for others. When it comes to seeing that side of things – most of us will never have much difficulty in seeing the material physicality in front of us.
But if we want to, we can also see a sleeping G-dly soul waiting to be awoken in another. Inside him, there is also a piece of holiness far beyond what any of us could ever imagine. Perhaps it is our task to wake the other up – instead of continually shunning the other and maliciously gossiping on him to all and sundry. One never really knows, that person may well turn out to becoming one's best friend. They may turn out to becoming one's best learning partner in the world. They may even turn out to becoming one's own in-law! And who knows, if one is prepared to put in the effort to continue to hunt for that beautiful G-dly spark inside them – one may end up becoming so saddened by the loss of such a person – that one's very own life may feel quite hopeless without them.
Of course, it takes looking at the world around us and appreciating what there really is out there. The greatness of another. And the loss that such a person can bring to the world – without them.
You can find out more about Yosef – and his book which is due to hit the shelves Chanukah 2010 (something he will not see in this world) – here: http://yosephrobinson.com/index.html
But before you go there, why not take a look at something of his life in the video below:
PS: The following article was published a day after this post and tells more about the facts of the tragedy as well as about Yosef's life.