Challenges to Tranquility

[This article appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit.]

There are, they like to say, two types of people: Those who categorize people into two groups and those who don’t.  I generally don’t.  But I have found that the “two groups” model does seem to encompass most folks when it comes to facing change.

Some individuals relish changes, are excited at the prospect of new circumstances, thrilled by interruptions of the norm.

And then there are the rest of us, we who are happiest when thing just blessedly stay the same, who are content with predictability, enamored of the status quo.

Changes, though, are part and parcel of life.  And so even those of us who are naturally averse to disruptions of our routines cannot escape them.  And among us, too, are two groups: Those who kick and scream (to no avail), and those who learn to come to terms with change.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wishing for peace and calm and stability.  No less a personage than our forefather Yaakov, Chazal inform us, “wished to dwell in tranquility.”

But as in Yaakov’s life, challenges to tranquility appear in every life.  Some take place, with Hashem’s help, as a matter of inevitable course, like adulthood and aging.  Others come as special blessings, like (hopefully) marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, and – with Divine assistance – beyond.

Other changes, though, disrupt not only our status quos but our emotional equilibrium.  Things like illness, family problems, loss of employment, loss of loved ones…

Such uninvited and unwanted guests in our lives are vexing, of course.  They elicit the “Why me?” or “Why now?” or just the “Why?” laments, and can easily lead to feelings of resentment, anger and frustration.

Even Yaakov was not immune to seeing his many trials, even in retrospect, in a bitter light.  “Few and bad have been my days,” he tells Par’oh when the Egyptian  ruler, apparently noting our forefather’s wizened appearance, asks how old he is.

The Midrash considers Yaakov to have erred in that attitude, and even to have lost years from his life as a result.  Yaakov, to be sure, did indeed have a travail-filled life, and the travails were far from minor.  But he is held to account nonetheless for regarding them as negative.

Well, what then?  As positive?

Apparently yes.  It’s not easy, to be sure, but it’s right.

And it’s reflected even in halacha:  “Just as one offers a blessing over good,” Chazal teach and the Shulchan Aruch codifies, “so does one offer a blessing over bad.”

Our first, visceral, understandable, predictable reaction to unwanted change is usually negative.  But it’s misguided.  We need to realize that we need to have a second, more thoughtful, reaction, born of the admonition that even “bad” deserves a blessing – to internalize, and even express, the recognition that what seems unfortunate is, one way or another, for our benefit.

On Purim we celebrated Haman’s downfall.  Imagine, though, how things must have looked when Mordechai refused to bow to the Amalekite.  What a terrible, dangerous move that was.  It was born of Mordechai’s choice, to be sure, not an “act of Hashem,” but it was in accord with His will.  And it was something that certainly seemed to bode ill.  It ended up, to put it mildly, boding well.

Commemoration of Purim’s ge’ulah, the Gemara tells us, must take place in the month closest to the ge’ula of Yetzias Mitzrayim.  Think back about the beginnings of that redemption.  A decree to kill all newborn baby boys.  A baby being abandoned by his parents, left to his fate in the bulrushes.  Which led to his being taken by Par’oh’s daughter Bisya into the royal palace.  All, in the end, for the good.

It’s not only in the Torah, though, or the Megilla, that the inscrutability of seemingly “bad” happenings is evident.  In 1941, my dear father, may he be well, barely a teenager, joined the Bialystok Novardhok Yeshiva, which had relocated, first, like many yeshivos at the time, to Vilna; and then, in the case of his yeshiva, to the Lithuanian town of Birzh.  The Soviets, who had taken over Lithuania, gave the talmidim a stark choice: Become citizens of the USSR or retain your Polish citizenship and be considered foreign nationals.  The former status would mean being drafted and sent to the front, cannon fodder for the German army; the latter, being banished to Siberia.

My father and his colleagues and their Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, made the second choice, and were put on a freight train headed east to the frigid, forbidding place that would be their home for close to three years.  He remembers how, as the train prepared to depart, the Jewish townsfolk wailed and bemoaned the lot of the Siberia-bound boys.  How must those boys have felt?  Yet they grew in unimaginable ways during their Siberian ordeal.  And they survived the war to marry and have children.  And those children had children.  And those latter children are now raising their own families – two of them, as it happens, my father’s granddaughters, and their husbands,  in Oak Park.

But how dark the future must have looked as that train pulled slowly away and gained steam.

Talk to anyone thoughtful over 60 – or anyone younger, if he or she is a perceptive person – and you can hear personal stories of how changes feared and then bemoaned turned out to be blessings.  Perhaps you can testify to your own.  If not, with Hashem’s help, you one day will.

“Reuvain” was once part of a small Jewish community centered around a yeshiva where he taught.  Over seven years, the yeshiva thrived, the community grew and remained close-knit, and Reuvain was sure that he and his family would live out their lives in that wonderful place.  Then, quite suddenly, circumstances entirely beyond Reuvain’s control dismantled the community and the yeshiva.  He found himself having to move thousands of miles away to become part of another institution and community.  He was devastated.

Eleven years later, Reuvain was still in that new place, and it had become a wonderful home for him and his growing family.  He wanted to stay there until Moshiach’s arrival.  But, once again, circumstances beyond his control, a school administration bent on a certain path, conspired to evict him.  He and his family picked up again, in tears, and moved to a place Reuvain had said he’d never want to do more than visit: New York

It’s been 20 years since that latter move, and Reuvain has grown to recognize the bracha in that move as well.  In fact, when his employment status changed radically and unexpectedly several years ago, a seemingly grave setback to his parnassah, it, too, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing him more creative freedom and opening new doors for income.

“Reuvain,” something of a slow learner, will likely still react with pain at any future seeming setbacks. I know, because his real name is Avi and he is me.  But he won’t have any excuse; just looking back at his own life so far should reassure him that things that seem bad can be very misleading

The idea is enshrined in Rabbi Akiva’s motto of “All that the Merciful One does is for the good,” and in the account related about in the Gemara (Brachos, 60b) his being refused lodging in a certain town.  Rather than express anger or frustration, he simply pronounced his motto to the people of the town, and went off to sleep in a nearby field.  More problems awaited him there, as the candle he lit was blown out by the wind; the rooster that was to serve as his alarm clock was devoured by a cat; and his donkey killed by a lion.

Still and all, he simply reminded himself that all that Hashem does is for the good.  That night a regiment of soldiers invaded the nearby town, taking all its residents captive.  Rabbi Akiva was spared that fate, the loss of his flame and animal having rendered him undetectable in the night.

The Gemara continues, though.  When the townsfolk, marched out in chains, passed Rabbi Akiva, he said to them, “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”

It’s a bit disturbing to read that final sentence.  What was Rabbi Akiva doing?  Mocking the unfortunate captives with his own happy escape from their destiny?

I don’t think he was doing anything of the sort.  Quite the contrary.  He was offering them encouragement, strength to face their own futures.  “I experienced adversity yesterday and last night,” he was saying to them, “and in the end it was clearly for my good.  You are experiencing adversity now.  Realize that, even if the change in your lives seems irredeemably evil, it is not.  It is, in some way or other, whether you can imagine it or not, for the good.”

We’re not always able, even in the long run, to recognize the good in what seems bad in our lives.  There are times, moreover, when adversity serves a purpose in itself, in ways we simply cannot see in this world.

But there’s a bottom line here, Rabbi Akiva’s parting message to the captives.  When we feel captive ourselves to changes we didn’t anticipate or want, we’re wise to hear in our heads his admonishing, encouraging words: “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”

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