There are no fortune tellers these days. While charlatans, quacks and crooks abound, no one can predict the future anymore. Prophecy was removed from the world at a certain point in our history, leaving us groping in the darkness of the present without any light to illuminate the future.
Sometimes, there are signs, warnings based on past experiences that can be used to protect us in the here and now. On a recent road trip through the scenic mountains of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had plenty such signs to keep me company.
The signs were meant to give us drivers a heads-up about upcoming road conditions. While I responsibly took them as such, I also had fun finding the deeper meaning in each of them that can be applied to our personal journeys along the highways of our lives.
“Falling Rocks,” reads one sign on the shoulder of the road. Instinctively, I glance up at the stony cliffs that tower to my right. At any moment, so the sign warns, a solid, heavy mass may come hurtling down that mountainside, aimed directly at my car. More than that: the sign is warning me that rocks have already fallen before, on this very spot. There’s a track record here. There’s a need to be careful.
In life, we don’t know when disaster will strike. All we know is that unfortunately, now and then, it does. I use the word “disaster” flexibly, running the gamut from a minor fender-bender to a devastating illness r”l. We are not on this earth to be comfortable, as we find by Yaakov Avinu when he sought to relax after many productive but difficult years. Just when he thought that life had settled down, the heartrending episode of Yosef and his brothers took place.
We can never rest on our laurels, trusting that the rocks of fate will remain firmly wedged in their mountain homes. Sometimes rocks do come loose, tumbling helter-skelter down the slope to wreak havoc. It’s important to be wary even while living optimistically, to drive with confidence but at the same time keep a cautious eye out for anything untoward up on that mountain.
Being human means being vulnerable. Hashem has given us the tools we need to keep ourselves reasonably safe, physically and spiritually. Let’s keep one eye on the mountain and the other (figuratively, of course, while driving) on our sefer Tehillim, because there’s only one Master Protector, the Shomer Yisroel, Who directs the trajectories of all the errant boulders of this world.
Another sign informs us that deer may suddenly dart out onto the road. In a match between a car and a bounding deer, one might make the mistake of thinking that the two-ton car always wins. But “winning” is relative. While the deer may emerge worse off from the encounter, the collision has the power to cause great damage to a car and its passengers.
Difficult people may cross our paths in life, blundering in when least expected, sometimes with painful results. Certain personality types can consistently rub us the wrong way and bring out the worst in us.
At first sight, they may not appear threatening at all, just a lovely, graceful deer, dancing through your headlights. For you, however, they are toxic. They carry a whiff of danger, succumbing to the yetzer hora of anger, jealousy, onoas devorim and many other negative feelings and behaviors.
It behooves us to prepare ourselves. When it comes to dealing with difficult people, alertness is the watchword. Should such a person appear at the side of the road, we must take proper measures to avoid a collision or, if a collision is inevitable, limit the damage. It’s no use closing our eyes and hoping for the best. This is a place where deer have been known to appear and cause problems. If and when they decide to do so again, we must make sure to be ready for them.
“Bridge May Be Icy.” A bridge is a narrow structure that spans a body of water below. It serves as a connective tissue, linking the road before the water with the road that continues on the other side.
In life, too, we have transition times, times when things are in flux as we move from one stage to another. The sign warns that bridges can be icy. They can be slippery and treacherous. When moving from one stage to another, for instance, from singlehood to marriage, marriage to parenthood, or parenthood to empty nest, there is an inherent danger of losing one’s footing. The strategies we relied upon in the earlier stage may not work in this new stage. All the systems we’ve labored so hard to set in place over the years may no longer be effective. Unexpected challenges, including from within our own confused hearts, can rise up to meet us as we’re making that slippery transition.
Bridges can be icy. The only way to cross them in safety is to be alert to the inherent danger and hold tight to our steering wheels. Remember who you are and the things you live by, but don’t be afraid to be open to change. New isn’t bad, only different. The icy slipperiness will pass when you reach the other side of the bridge. Just hold on tight until you get there.
Sometimes you see a yellow sign with a picture of a truck, head-down on a sharp incline. This is an indication that a hill is approaching.
When land rises up to form a hill or mountain, the driver’s view is temporarily blocked. Unlike driving along a smooth stretch of road, where visibility is good for miles ahead, hills prevent a driver from seeing far. He has no idea what he’s heading into; a fine metaphor for life!
When climbing a hill, one has to take it on faith that conditions are calm at the top, but be prepared in case they turn out not to be. One has to believe that he will eventually reach the top, when his view will expand again and he’ll be able to drive more comfortably.
Going downhill is even trickier. It’s all too easy to lose control on a steep slope, gaining dangerous speed. At such times, it may be necessary to drive with your foot on the brake. When everything around you is going downhill, that’s when you have to exercise more restraint than usual. Extra self-control is necessary when everything around you is demonstrating a lamentable lack of control.
On parts of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, there are several “Winding Roads” signs. The same sign may as well be posted on every chuppah in the world! For a young couple starting out in life, the road ahead will be full of twists and turns. There will be some easy-driving stretches where perfect road conditions prevail, but also plenty of times when extra care must be taken to drive safely, when alertness pays off and good middos are a must.
As you’re driving along that winding road, full of unexpected turns, possible dangers and the need for heightened caution, it helps to remember three things. First, you’re not alone. You share the road with many fellow travelers, people just like you who will gladly lend a hand if you need one, including the One Whose hand is ever-ready to pluck you from danger if you call out to Him.
Second, don’t forget to look at the scenery while you’re driving. Don’t let the stresses of life distract you from its wonder and beauty. Enjoy the verdant farmlands. Relish the mountain views. The panorama is just as much a part of the road as the various danger signs sprinkled along the way, and it makes the drive much more pleasant.
Last, always remember the destination that lies at the road’s end. This journey will not last forever. It will eventually finish in the place we’re all working and driving toward, when all the twists and travails will finally be understood and the need for warning signs will be a thing of the past. The hard part will lie behind us and only the scenery, and the reward, will remain.