I had rationed my time perfectly. It was the Thursday before the final Shabbos of the year when I sat down at 8:30 pm to write. I had made a pact with myself to complete a script over the month of Elul and I was down to mere hours. Just then I got a text from my friend Aaron.
Aaron hurt his ankle and couldn’t put weight on it. On top of that, his car was parked in a tow-away zone if left overnight and I was the only person he knows who can drive a manual. With no other options, I drove to Hollywood Boulders rock climbing gym, picked him up, brought him home, Ubered back to the gym, drove his car to his home, made sure Aaron was comfortable, then finally got back to my apartment around 10:30 pm. Needless to say not much writing got done.
Flash forward to this past Monday. With a writing assignment due, a blog to write, a promising meeting with a literary manager to prepare for, and other commitments, my week was looking even more hectic. But just after morning davening, I got a text from Aaron again.
My initial reaction was… “Really? Can’t he ask someone else for help for once? ” (Actually my initial reaction was to wonder if cat was an autocorrected typo for car.) But I responded…
I immediately called him, but it goes to voice mail. He pings back…
Aaron’s never been religious. In fact, when we were in reform Sunday school together, we’d sit in the back and make jokes the whole time. So when he asked me that, I knew it was serious.
Man Makes Plans and God Laughs
At the beginning of this week’s parsha, God appears to Avram (before his name is changed to Avraham) and says Lech Lecha. This is most simply understood as “Go for your own benefit and for your own good.” It’s a promise that if he leaves his father and goes to Israel he will get three blessings; he will be the father of a great nation, he will be blessed with wealth, and his name will be great. Kids, fame, and fortune. The American dream, right?
But over the course of the Torah reading, things don’t go quite as planned. Israel has a famine, so he and his wife, Sarai are forced to go to Egypt. While in Egypt Sarai gets taken by Pharaoh. Then he and his nephew Lot have a disagreement and part ways. But because of that, Lot gets kidnapped in what is essentially the first world war. So Avram takes 318 men and goes to fight and rescue him.
Through these events Avram gets the wealth and the fame, but as he approaches the age of 100, he still doesn’t have a child, the first of the promised blessings. What is clearly most important to Avram, passing on a living tradition of a connection with Hakadosh BaruchHu, his purpose for being, still eludes him. Why would God keep this from him?
When We Can’t Do What We’re Meant To
We all have goals. But for some of our biggest hopes it seems like we just can’t get them off the ground. Maybe it’s a sign from God we shouldn’t be going down that path. But what about our ambitions that are clearly good? Getting married? Having kids? Having money to support your community? Just having enough time to get work done and make it to shul but suddenly there’s a traffic jam? Why does God make these things hard and even seemingly fruitless?
Rabbi Moshe Tuvia Lieff tells the story of the Rav of Givat Shaul. Before World War II the Rav was a student of the Choffetz Chaim, one of the greatest rabbis in the last 200 years. But during the war had to stop all studying as his life was uprooted to the ghettos and at the worst of times had to bury his fellow Jews. Then after the war he became the Rav of Givat Shaul. He was asked, Rav, what did Hitler take from you? 2 years? 5 years? 10 years? How much learning, wisdom, and life was lost?
His answer? I lost nothing. Before the war, God wanted me learning with the Choffetz Chaim. During the war He wanted me leading students through Siberia. After the war He wanted me to be the Rosh Yeshiva.
Rabbi Lieff’s story is about mastering the essential outlook of not giving into despair. In Hebrew the word for despair is יאוש or ye’ush. The mentality of ye’ush is so powerful that in many circumstances, if you lose an object and in your mind you despair of ever getting it back, the object at that point legally becomes ownerless.
The gematria (numerical value) of ye’ush is 317. They say the reason Avram went to war with 318 men is because it was one more than ye’ush. He was closing the door on despair. Think about it. A family member gets kidnapped in a war of the nine most powerful nations, how could you not fall into despair? But Avram didn’t because it is in the essence of a Jew to rid yourself of ye’ush. Though he waits and waits for a child, he soldiers on. “Maybe my progeny will be Lot? Maybe it will be my servant Eliezer? Maybe it will be Ishmael?” Until finally at an age where it would be impossible for anyone else, God gives him Yitzchok.
A Deeper Lech Lecha
We think that we are only accomplishing when we are checking off the boxes on our to-do lists. But our real purpose is to connect to Hashem at any given moment. It’s when we are in the times of frustration or when we think we’re so off course that, if we keep a cool head, we get a fresh perspective and insight, or make a connection with someone we never expected.
If we’re stuck fantasizing on what we think we should be doing, that’s when we’re most disconnected. But if we can remember that whatever we’re doing at any given moment, whatever circumstances God has put you in… you’re supposed to be there and there’s something you’re supposed to be getting out of it.
Above I said the translation of Lech Lecha was “go for your benefit and your good.” But another way of understanding the verse is, “go to you,” meaning, become who you are meant to be. Realize your potential. With that mindset, we become free from our external definitions of success. It’s not about whether we get the job or the romantic relationship. It’s about becoming better and doing good for others. And at every possible opportunity.
It was mid afternoon on Monday when Aaron called to tell me that his mother had passed away from an unexpected blood clot. Suddenly everything on my schedule became trivial. I, of course, proceeded to go to his apartment to feed, water, and clean the litter box of his cat. All the while, wishing I could do more. Though my plans for the day had a minor delay, Aaron’s life for the next few months will be on quite the hiatus. And that’s only the practical stuff. Emotionally there’s no telling when his life will be back on track.
I’d like to think Aaron’s pain is ultimately for the best, but losing family is the ultimate test of emmunah. And I don’t think I’ll ever have the words to give him comfort or solace. But for me, now having a clear picture of the circumstance, being there for my friend is so much better, so much more impactful, so much more in line with actualizing who I am as a friend, a human being, and a Jew than any script I would have written that day. That’s Lech Lecha.
This post is dedicated to the aliyah of the neshama of Marilyn bas Avraham.