Last week I decided to mix things up a little bit for the summer, and instead of a classic sermon, I started a three-part mini-series on the topic of suffering in Jewish tradition. As I said then, there are so many misconceptions with terrible ramifications and there’s no better time of the year than the Three Weeks to clarify some of this.
Last week, I spoke about the dangers of messianism and how not all stories have happy endings, and I was told it was the most depressing sermon I have ever given. Someone actually pulled me aside at kiddush and asked me if I’m going through a hard time.
I’m not, thanks for your concern.
Well, today’s part two, and it’s only getting more depressing. Because today, I’d like to talk about why most of the inspirational stories you hear in Jewish circles are really not that inspirational.
Let’s start with one of those stories, a true story: Freddie Batesh, a young Jewish man, spent his gap year studying in Israel. At some point in the year, his health started to decline quite rapidly. He checked into a hospital to find that he had complete kidney failure. He immediately flew home and did the responsible thing and got himself on the kidney transplant waiting list.
Now, as of yesterday, there are approximately 93,000 people on that list. People in need of a kidney can wait five, sometimes ten years until they get one. Tragically, some don’t make it on dialysis for that long, and never receive the transplant they so desperately need.
At the time that Freddie was in need of a kidney – some of you may remember this, there was an Amein Campaign going on. I don’t know who came up with this and I don’t know why, but out of all the mitzvos in the Torah, Biblical and Rabbinic, someone decided that saying Amein after a blessing is IT. There are certain trends that mysteriously pick up in the Orthodox community and then just as mysteriously disappear. Like remember that mango-strawberry salad that everyone always served?! Or sushi? Everyone has to always have sushi. Case in point – only kosher pizza shop sells sushi. Find me one Papa John’s that has sushi on their menu! Or that woman who was encouraging people to be ready for Shabbos by midday on Friday – which is the most impractical idea ever suggested, causing virtually every woman to forever have a complex.
At any rate, when Freddie was waiting for a kidney, Amein was trending in the Orthodox community. People were writing books about the spiritual impact of Amein, and people started having Beracha parties. That’s right, a beracha party. It’s actually a beautiful idea. People would bake and cook and gather together, and then they would go around the room and each person, before they took a bite, would make a blessing out loud; they would say the blessing with concentration, and everyone would shout – Amein. So Freddie turned to his mother, and said, “Mom, let’s make a beracha party in the merit that I find a kidney match. We have nothing to lose, it’s a beautiful Mitzvah, and who knows.”
His mother, with the help of a young woman she met at shul, organized a beracha party in the merit that he finds a kidney match. Tons of people showed up, they made their blessings, they said Amein, and they went home.
Less than three days later, the phone rings in the Batesh home, and the woman on the other end says, “You won the lottery.” They explained to the family that someone had just died in Texas who had a perfect match with Freddie, a six-antigen match, allowing him to jump ahead of the other 90-something thousand people who signed up before him. It happens, but is extremely, extremely, rare, hence, you won the lottery.
So, he flew out to Texas, got a new kidney, and got his life back. But the story’s not over. A little while later, Freddie’s mother turned to the young woman who helped her organize the beracha party, and said, “Hey! You’re single, my son’s single, you helped save his life, you guys should go out.” And sure enough, Freddie found a different match, and a few months later, they were happily married. (aish.com)
Now, isn’t that inspiring? Imagine if Freddie never got ill, he may never have found the love of his life. Imagine if Freddie’s mother hadn’t organized a beracha party, he may never have had the merit to find a kidney. There are so many details in this story, both good and bad, that perfectly align. Clearly, clearly, clearly, this is the hand of G-d.
Or so it would seem.
Because you see there is this assumption underlying every Jewish story we’ve been told since we were little kids, that life is like the Truman Show. The Truman Show for those who missed it, is a brilliant movie of a man, Truman, whose life is choreographed every step along the way. He doesn’t know it but everyone in his life, except for him, is an actor. And there’s a director whose making sure that every day has new challenges for him. Every day brings a new set of circumstances that Truman has to deal with.
In every Jewish day school, yeshiva, or bais yakov, we are taught (not exactly using that analogy,) that the Truman show is our life. There is a director, with a capital D, who oversees our every move. That guy who refuses to make a right at the stop sign at the corner of Fallstaff and Cross-Country, waiting for everyone to take a left turn even though he has the right of way and you’re in a BIG rush, that’s G-d, the director, testing you, seeing if you could hold it together. That person who posts personal questions to you on Facebook instead of PM’ing you, that’s G-d, the director, setting up a scenario to test your compassion. The tree branch that fell in the storm, the leaf blowing in the wind, the color of your hair, or the lack thereof, EVERYTHING is part of a custom-tailored, perfectly choreographed set, called your life.
And in that light, Freddie Batesh’s story is a really inspiring one. G-d pulled out all the stops for this Disney-esque, drama-filled story with a happy-ending.
The problem though is that this approach of everything being directed by G-d is is rather modern, and not deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The notion that every leaf that falls, falls for a reason, that every circumstance is set-up deliberately for you and your life mission, is an idea popularized by the Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Chassidic movement, who lived in the late 18th century. You find allusions to this idea in earlier literature, it existed before, but it was far, far from mainstream thinking.1
Two of the most important thinkers in classical Jewish philosophy, Maimonides, the Rambam, and the Ramban, Nachmanides, both disagree. They are of the opinion that G-d is certainly aware of everything that happens. More than that, G-d, if He so chooses can intervene and manipulate anything and everything – that is the basis for supplicatory prayer. But just because He can, does not mean He does.
To them, life is not a perfectly choregraphed set. The Rambam and the Ramban argue that only the truly righteous, only the select elite have Divine Providence like Truman Burbank. The rest of us have what they call hashgacha k’lalit, general providence guiding our lives. G-d is aware, G-d can intervene, but more often than not, He won’t. More often that not, the circumstances we find ourselves in are by chance; its nature running its course. And so stories like those of Freddie Batesh, stories that have spawned an entire genre of Jewish story books, according to our classical thinkers, are for the most part, pretty cool coincidences. Nothing more, nothing less.
See, I told you this would be depressing.
But before you walk away depressed, let’s break this down because I don’t think it’s as depressing as it sounds. Let’s start with a book I am sure you are all familiar with called Why Bad Things Happen to Good People written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a very moving book, but philosophically it’s terribly lacking. In his book, Kushner describes his struggle with evil in the world and concludes that G-d is incapable of stopping evil from taking place. Which means that G-d is not omnipotent, which means – that G-d is not G-d.
On the other extreme you have the Baal Shem Tov – the Truman theory. According to this approach, and this again, is the approach that for whatever reason has really taken off in modern times, is that everything that happens, good or evil, happens because G-d willed it.
And then you have the classical approach – the medieval commentators who argue that individualized scene-setting is only relevant for the super righteous, uber-holy, tzadik-material. Otherwise, G-d is watching, G-d cares, G-d loves us, and G-d can intervene, but typically, He allows nature to take her course.
A wise woman recently pointed out to me how this approach is in some ways far more comforting than the other two. Because sometimes people face failure after failure, setback after setback, and they’re left with the question, what are you trying to say, G-d, that You haven’t said already?! WHY?
Maimonides would gently explain that illness is a part of the natural world, setbacks are a part of the natural order, loss is a part of life. G-d is not mad at you, G-d is not yelling at you. Sometimes we luckily win the good lottery and sometimes we get the bad one.2
But whether you find it uplifting or depressing, whether you take the approach of the Baal Shem Tov or of Maimonides, the truth is, it doesn’t really matter. It matters philosophically – is this message from G-d or not. But practically, in terms of our response, I believe, should be the exact same. To illustrate, I’ll share with you a story that I shared with some of you before.
My daughter Tehila loves to draw. When she was much younger, she would constantly take my printing paper and draw pictures on it. The problem was that when I needed to print, we’d never have paper. So I went out and bought her a coloring book. And she hated it.
She explained to me that she liked to draw her own fairies, princesses, and castles, and not be bound by the fairies, princesses, and castles, that this book had outlined for her.
But a few days later, I found her happily coloring in her coloring book. It seems like she realized that although she couldn’t choose the picture, she did get to choose how to color it in. And with the book’s outlines, and her creativity, she was able to paint what seemed to me like beautiful pieces of art.
(Last time I shared this story two people went out to buy me a pad of blank paper for my daughter’s creativity…)
Life, however, you understand it, is a beautiful coloring book of black and white outlines. Those are the circumstances of life, whether by design or whether by chance, sometimes the picture is pretty, sometimes it’s not, but this is our life. Our mission in life, according to ALL Jewish sources, is to color in between the lines. We have the choice if the colors will be greys and blacks or pinks and purple. We have the choice of how to respond to every circumstance that’s thrown – or falls – our way.
In the words of Victor Frankl, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” If we can’t change the outline, at least we can change ourselves.
Some days the picture we turn to is beautiful, some days the picture we get is ugly. Some days the picture is not the one you signed up for. But it doesn’t matter. Because the only thing we truly have control over, the only thing we need to focus on is how can I color this in?
Life’s question is not why, there may not even be a reason, but that doesn’t exempt us from the what – from doing everything we can – and even in the worst of circumstances, we can do a whole lot, to turn those black and white circumstances into a brilliantly-colored life.
1 – see the final chapter of the Kuzari for Rav Yehuda HaLevi’s treatment of the different opinions
2 – in the final chapter of the Kuzari, Rav Yehuda HaLevi suggests that we view the big events in our lives as being directed by G-d as a form of a compromise and good practical advice. This can be one way of looking at the gemara in berachos that suggests that we introspect when misfortune befalls us – It may not be Divinely orchestrated but it is good practice to see it as such.