THE 'I-DEAL' LIFE
When we place an order at a restaurant, and the dish we receive is not the one we ordered, we have every right to respectfully protest and ask the waiter to bring us what we ordered. But life is not a restaurant. We can place our “order,” we can ask Gd for what we want, but when we receive something different, then we need to accept it.
Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
As if the pain and humiliation of infertility wasn’t enough, Rachel had to watch as her older sister, Leah, with whom she shared her husband due to her father’s devious shenanigans, begot one child after another. Finally, in an outburst of frustration, she approached Yaakov and exclaimed, “Give me children – for if not, I will die!” (Beresheet 30:1). The Ramban, among others, explains this as a desperate request that Yaakov pray on her behalf, that she be blessed with fertility.
Yaakov’s response is startling: “Yaakov became angry with Rachel, and he said, ‘Am I in the place of Gd, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?’.”
When was the last time we saw or heard of a pious rabbi berate a broken individual desperately asking for a blessing? Why would Yaakov criticize Rachel for requesting his help? There is nothing more natural than a woman desiring to beget children, or than a woman begging for help to realize this dream. What was Yaakov angry about?
We find several approaches taken to explain this puzzling episode. The Or Ha’haim (Rav Haim Ben Attar, 1696-1743) writes that Yaakov criticized Rachel not for the request itself, but rather for her remark, “for if not, I will die.” Jewish tradition teaches that words – especially words spoken by righteous people, such as Rachel – have an impact. One should never speak about calamities befalling him or others, even in jest or as an exaggeration, such as, “I’m so tired I feel like I’m about to die.” Words are powerful, and one endangers himself by making such remarks, even if he does not mean them literally. Yaakov therefore chastised Rachel for inappropriately describing herself as “dead” without children.
A different explanation is suggested by Rabbenu Bahya, who writes that Yaakov was telling Rachel to approach Gd directly. Rather than demand that her husband pray on her behalf, Rachel should have engaged in heartfelt prayer and begged the Almighty to grant her children. Many other explanations have been offered, as well.
I believe, however, that there is an additional approach that we could take, one which conveys a fundamental lesson that we ought to carry with us each and every day of our lives.
Fretting Over a Seat
Already from a very young age, we all like our regular seats. We like walking into a room and knowing that there is a particular place where we are expected to be. This is true in the kitchen and dining room, and it is true in the synagogue. There is a fair degree of comfort and security in having a seat all one’s own, where he and others expect him to be.
I have seen, and most likely most readers have, as well, situations where the issue of seats in the synagogue has ruined people’s entire Shabbat. A man walks into the synagogue and sees somebody sitting in his regular seat. He asks the person to move, but the person, for whatever reason, refuses. The first man is furious. He angrily harangues the foreign occupier of his seat and goes somewhere else. He is agitated and enraged, helplessly unable to focus on the prayer, the Torah reading, or the rabbi’s sermon. He comes home agitated, and remains that way the whole day. His entire Shabbat is ruined – all because he could not sit in his familiar seat.
Of course, there is no reason for a seat in the synagogue to ruin a person’s Shabbat. All that was needed was a 30-second mental adjustment. His expectations were not met, and so he just needed to do a “switch” in his mind, by telling himself, “The seat I expected to sit in is not available today, so I will sit somewhere else.” This single thought would have saved him so much grief and aggravation.
I know somebody who was traveling, and before Shabbat he frantically searched through his luggage for his tie. As it turned out, he forgot to pack it before he left home. He decided he couldn’t go to the synagogue, because he did not have a tie.
Once again, a quick, simple mental adjustment was all that was needed for this man to experience and gain the immense benefits of praying with a minyan. He could have just told himself, “I expected to have a nice tie that matched my suit to wear in the synagogue, but it is not here, so I’ll either try to borrow a tie or go to the synagogue without a tie.” This was all he needed to do, but he couldn’t. He got stuck in his expectation that he would wear the tie he wanted to wear.
The Blueprint and Reality
These examples [DS1] might sound extreme – and they are – but the truth is, we encounter these situations all the time, on an almost daily basis. We all make plans, and rarely do they all materialize. A man plans to wake up at 6am, go to the synagogue for Shaharit, stay for the Torah class, return home for a quick breakfast, and then catch the train to work. He also has plans for work – meetings, paperwork, and so on. But how often does everything work out? Whether it’s oversleeping through the alarm clock, discovering there was no milk for breakfast, a flat tire, a traffic jam, a delay in the train service, cancelled meetings, a computer system failure, a coworker who calls in sick – or countless other potential problems that could arise – almost without exception, something unanticipated will happen over the course of the day that throws a monkey wrench into our plans. How often do we have a “perfect” day, when everything goes precisely as we wanted?
This is true as well with regard to our larger plans for life. All people, particularly youngsters, have a blueprint of their future, a general – or perhaps even specific – idea of how their lives will unfold. They want to be married by a certain age, and then have a certain number of children over the course of a certain number of years. They want their children to be healthy, bright, responsible, obedient, and socially well-adjusted. And, they want to live in a certain kind of a house in a particular neighborhood.
As we get older, we slowly begin to realize that reality differs significantly from the blueprint. Not everyone gets married when they want to. Not everyone has children when they want to. Not everyone has the kind of children they want. Not everyone has the job, home or neighbors they want.
And no one has exactly the life they want.
Too many people are miserable because they think that all the people around them enjoy perfectly smooth, peaceful, worry-free lives, while they struggle. This is wrong. Everybody struggles, everybody deals with adversity, and everybody faces obstacles and challenges. Whether it’s health, finances, marriage, children, neighbors or something else – everybody has problems. The difference lies only in the way people handle their problems. Some people lose their composure over minor problems, and others manage to remain calm and content even during times of grave crisis. There will always be bumps along the road; the question is whether we do our best to climb over them, or become too flustered to try.
When I studied in Israel, there was a charismatic rabbi who taught in the yeshiva. He had an especially jovial personality which allowed him to build and maintain meaningful relationships with his students and to exert a strong positive influence. As I got to know him, I naturally assumed that he has a smooth, pleasant life. After all, he always seemed content and at ease. I figured that everything in this rabbi’s life was perfect and serene, and this is the reason why he was always smiling and in good spirits.
About half a year or so after I arrived in the yeshiva, I discovered – to my sheer astonishment – that a number of years earlier, a fire had broken out in this rabbi’s home, and several of his children tragically died. I couldn’t believe it. There was no sign of sorrow on the rabbi’s face, no indication whatsoever that he had suffered such a terrible personal tragedy. He undoubtedly endured a great deal of pain, but he understood that he needed to move on, that life is too precious to spend it mired in sorrow, stuck in the frustration of unfulfilled dreams.
Halacha governs the process of bereavement, requiring a yearlong mourning process. No mourning restrictions apply beyond a year after a loved one’s passing – because we are meant to move on. Of course, a departed family member will be sorely missed forever. But nevertheless, the mourner is told to recover and move on, to adapt to his new reality and make the most of his new, unfortunate situation. Sometimes we need to discard our “blueprint” and draw up a new one.
Mastering the Skill of Adaptability
A woman once came to me after her young child was diagnosed with autism. She reacted to the news with sheer denial, insisting that the specialists were wrong. In order to help her son, she told me, she was considering flying to Israel to receive blessings from great rabbis. I would never discourage anybody from traveling to Israel and meeting with tzadikim, so I encouraged her to go. She received blessings and prayed at holy sites, but the situation did not change; her son’s symptoms remained.
The woman came back to me and said, “I’ve exhausted all the possibilities. What else can I do?”
I told her there was one prayer which she had not yet recited – asking Gd to give her the strength and courage to accept the situation and make the most of it. Throughout her journeys trying to supernaturally change her child, he was not getting the professional help he needed to advance and reach his maximum potential. This is not faith. Faith means accepting Gd’s decisions even if this means discarding our “blueprint” and adapting to a different reality.
Why do we think we know what kind of children, or how many children, we should have? Why do we assume the right to choose? Don’t we believe that Gd knows better? Of course, we are encouraged to do our best to make our lives what we want them to be. But at the same time, we need to accept and adapt when they aren’t.
When we place an order at a restaurant, and the dish we receive is not the one we ordered, we have every right to respectfully protest and ask the waiter to bring us what we ordered. But life is not a restaurant. We can place our “order,” we can ask Gd for what we want and work towards obtaining it, but when we receive something different, then we need to accept it. The “Chef” in this case did not make any mistake; He knows what we need, and so He gave it to us even though we ordered something different.
This might be the reason for Yaakov’s angry response to Rachel. Certainly, there was nothing wrong with her wanting children, praying for children, and asking Yaakov to pray that she should have children. But he reprimanded her for declaring that without children she was “dead.” This was a mistake. If Gd made her infertile and decided she should not have children, then she needed to accept this reality, realize that Gd wants her to fill a different role, and adapt to that role. Yaakov thus rhetorically asked Rachel, “Am I in the place of Gd, who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” He was telling her that we do not know better than the Almighty what we need to fulfill our mission in this world. Nobody should ever think that if his wish is not granted, then he is “dead,” and his life has no meaning. The situation Gd placed us in is precisely the situation we are supposed to be in, and we need to accept it and adapt.
It should not surprise us that a righteous woman like Rachel made this mistake. The pasuk says in Mishleh (24:16), “Ki sheva yipol tzadik vekam – A righteous person falls seven times and then rises.” Even the righteous occasionally “fall” and encounter difficult tests and challenges. We should not think that the lives of the tzadikim are perfectly smooth and simple. They have their share of hardships and “falls,” just like the rest of us. The difference is “vekam” – the righteous person gets up rather than getting stuck. And this is the model we need to follow in our own lives. We will all – without exception – have our share of disappointments, unrealized aspirations, and struggles. And our response must be “vekam,” picking ourselves up, with strength, faith and determination, adapting to the unanticipated reality, and making the most of every situation Gd places us in.
Serving Gd on His Terms
A famous Mishnah in Pirkeh Avot instructs, “Do not say, ‘I will learn when I am free,’ for perhaps you will not be free.” The standard and simple interpretation of this passage is that one must not wait until he has free time before he decides to set aside time for Torah study. We must find time now, no matter how busy we are, because we have no reason to assume that we will be less busy later in life.
There is, however, a deeper reading of this Mishna. We must not think that we can learn only when our lives are tranquil and peaceful, when we are worry-free, when we are not saddled by problems and challenges. Perhaps, the Mishnah teaches, “we will not be free” – meaning, it is entirely possible that Gd, for reasons we cannot know, decided that He wants us to serve Him amid struggles and hardship. In other words, the Mishnah tells us not to assume that we can serve Gd on our terms, only when life is smooth and easy. The truth is and always will be that life is seldom smooth and easy. We will always be struggling with one problem or another, and we need to accept this reality and achieve the most we can under the circumstances.
Gd gives us many blessings and gifts, but they are not always packaged the way we like. We can all find contentment, fulfillment and genuine joy in any situation; the key is adaptability, accepting the fact that the “seat” we wanted is sometimes not available, and so we simply need to “sit” somewhere else, trusting that we are fully capable of succeeding and achieving in whichever “seat” Gd puts us in. After all, He knows far better than we do which “seat” is best for us.