In a Perfect World
I need this like a hole in the head.” That’s the kind of reaction we have when something untoward happens to us. By “something untoward,” I mean something unpleasant. Certainly, something unwanted.
Every morning, we thank Hashem, Who has provided me my every need. Hashem gives us everything we need. But do we really need everything we get?
The question about why we have to suffer through difficult times is an endlessly fascinating one. Moshe Rabbeinu asked it. Other great minds have pondered it. But Hakadosh Boruch Hu has not chosen to explain His thinking to us. All we can do is try to catch some glimmerings of understanding as we go through our lives.
Remember the famous Rashi about Yaakov Avinu, who just wanted to live a peaceful life where he could serve Hashem without distraction? Instead, Rashi tells us, koftzo olov rogzo shel Yosef. Yaakov wanted serenity; what he got was the terrible episode in which his beloved son was sold into slavery, and all of its painful aftermath.
In our own lives, on a less cosmic scale but just as important to each of us personally, we find a similar pattern. Things are coasting along just fine, when—bam! A problem strikes. I remember learning that a person who has not experienced any trouble for forty days should start worrying. Troubles are a sign that Hakadosh Boruch Hu cares about us and is interested in us. They show us that He is personally involved in our growth.
And they show that he wants to have a relationship with us. Troubles are a way of reminding us that there is something beyond the goldfish bowl of our small concerns. Something far bigger than we are, bigger than our personal ambitions and hopes and worries. Something which is outside of us, and infinitely more exalted.
Sometimes which, in our preoccupation with the minutiae of our lives, we can run the risk of forgetting.
A Recipe for Life
Hashem gave us a Torah as a primer for life, but He didn’t stop there. He is actively and intimately involved in our lives, at least the extent that we focus on Him and let Him in. That means an abundance of blessings. It also means trouble.
Many creatures in the animal kingdom abandon their offspring to their fates shortly after giving birth to them. We human beings, in contrast, spend many long years carefully raising our young. As our Parent, Hashem is engaged in an ongoing process of raising us as well, both as a nation and as individuals. Parenting means showering one’s young with both affection and discipline. And, of course, the goal of any parenting endeavor is to see nachas from our young.
Hashem is also our Teacher. As such, he poses sometimes rigorous tests to help us see where we’re holding in life and where we need to improve. As a bonus for passing these tests, they are designed to help us earn eternal reward. When I’m hurting over some difficulty in my life, I find that it helps to think about the roles, in human terms, that strive to emulate Hashem in His relationship to us.
Suppose you had a houseful of small children, or a classroom full of the same, and you were responsible for raising or educating them. Would you simply hand them a list of rules or a textbook or two and leave them to their own devices? You would not win any Parent- or Teacher-of-the-Year award if you did.
What would earn you accolades is a carefully thought-out plan that takes into account each child’s nature, gives them the tools they need to maximize their potential, challenges them constantly, and rewards or punishes compliance—or the lack thereof—as prods for further growth.
Doesn’t that kind of sound like the recipe of life?
The Next Level
Let’s think some more about that roomful or houseful of little kids. They are bright and adorable, and you find them a delight to watch. They are also quite infantile. Busy with their childish pursuits and pleasures, they are extremely attuned to their bodies and far less so to their souls.
While you may enjoy this undeveloped stage immensely, you wouldn’t want them to remain adorable little tykes forever. You recognize the need to educate them past their youngness and into a different way of being. A way that embraces the important values they need to learn. A way that will ultimately turn them into fully developed, spiritually striving human beings.
I once wrote a short story, in the science-fiction vein, about a woman who finds a way to keep her cute little youngsters forever young. Not surprisingly, the endless pleasure she’d hoped for soon turns sour. Endless diapers and babyish tantrums are bearable because we know that they have an end point. When our children being whiny, or wild, or just plain silly, we can reassure ourselves that they won’t be that way forever. Optimally, childish behavior ends with childhood.
Without really thinking about it, we seek out signs of growth in our children. We enjoy each stage, but wait and watch for signs that the child is ready to move on to the next one. Even as we revel in their childishness, we have our eyes and ears peeled for intimations of growth.
Much as we take pleasure in their wide-eyed innocence and delicious cuteness, that pleasure exists in the context of the total person we’re hoping to raise. We love them the way they are, but we also want them to grow up and be a credit to us and themselves. An unexpectedly thoughtful question or surprisingly mature gesture gives us a tiny but heady glimpse of the end point toward which they’re moving… level by infinitesimal level.
Passing the Test
Back to those nasty tests and ordeals we were talking about. Most of the time, like the kids in that pre-school classroom, we keep ourselves busy with our “childish” pursuits—childish in Divine terms, that is. Though we try our best to become the kind of people whom Hashem has indicated we should be, we are like those small children, playing our games as earnestly as if that classroom were the whole world. As if how we win or lose our little games matters at all in the larger scheme of things… While, all along, our Parent and Teacher is waiting patiently for us to grow up and embrace the bigger picture. Waiting for us to expand our world, and our vision, until we can see well enough to include Him.
When the testing times come, they shake us out of our complacency and our focus on the trivial. They force us to remember that there is a higher existence and a higher goal. They help us remember Who is watching, waiting, and nurturing us from Above. They help us grow up.
It’s those little signs of moving from level to level that give parents their exquisite “nachas moments.” Pleasure can certainly be taken from kids’ childish stages, but true nachas comes from witnessing signs of growth.
The way to foster that kind of growth is through challenging a person, sometimes to the core of his very being. Optimally, the ordeals that Hashem puts us through should bring out the very best in us. They should strengthen our emunah and increase our bitachon. They should lead us into more loving and supportive interactions with one another. They should help us grow into larger people who are part of a larger existence.
Troubles still hurt, no question about it. But maybe it helps to know that, each time we meet a challenge the way a child of Hakadosh Boruch Hu is meant to, we are being offered a window for amazing growth. If we take advantage of that window, we have a chance to afford Him the nachas that He’s been waiting for.
Hashem gives us everything we need. But do we really need everything we get?
The answer, it seems, is clear: Absolutely.