By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov, Jax., FL
Spotting an extraordinary teacup, a middle age couple who shared a deep appreciation for fine antiques and pottery, asked the proprietor of a local antique shop if they might have a closer look: “We’ve never seen a cup quite as beautiful,” they told the lady while she handed them the delicate article.
“I’ve not always been a teacup, you know,” whispered the antique as they took her into their hands. “There was a time when I was just a lump of clay.” “Oh, please tell us more,” urged the awestruck couple.
“As I said, I was once just a lump of red clay when my master took me and rolled me and repeatedly pounded and patted me. ‘Don’t do that,’ I yelled. ‘I don’t like it!’ But he only smiled and gently repeated, ‘Not yet, not yet.’
Then, wham! I was placed on a spinning wheel and suddenly I was spun around and around. ‘Stop it! I’m so dizzy, I’m going to be sick!’ I screamed. But the master only nodded and muttered quietly, ‘Not yet’.
He spun, poked and prodded and shaped me to suit himself and then put me in the oven. I never felt such heat. I yelled and knocked and pounded at the door. ‘Help! Get me out of here!’
I could see him through the opening and I could read his lips as he shook his head from side to side saying, ‘Not yet, not yet’.
When I thought I couldn’t bear it another minute, the door opened. He carefully took me out and put me on the shelf where I began to cool. Oh, that felt so good. ‘Ah, this is much better,’ I thought.
But after I cooled off, he picked me up and he brushed and painted me all over. The fumes were horrible, I thought I would gag. ‘Oh, please stop it! Just let me alone!’ I cried. He only shook his head and said, ‘not yet’.
Then suddenly he put me back in to the oven. Only this was twice as hot and I just knew I would suffocate. I begged, I pleaded, I screamed, I cried. I was convinced I would never make it; I was ready to give up.
Just then the door opened and he took me out and again placed me on the shelf where I cooled and waited, wondering what was next. An hour later he handed me a mirror and said, look at yourself, and I did.
‘That’s not me’ I cried, ‘It couldn’t be me. It’s so beautiful! I’m beautiful!’
Quietly he spoke: ‘I want you to remember that despite the pain of being rolled and pounded and patted, had I left you alone you’d have just dried up and disintegrated.
I know that spinning around on the wheel made you dizzy but had I stopped you’d have crumbled. I know it was hot and dreadful in the oven but had I not put you there you would have cracked. I’m aware how bad the fumes felt when I brushed and painted you but with out it, you would never have had any color in your life. If I hadn’t put you back in the second oven your hardness would not have held, you wouldn’t have survived.
Now you are a magnificent product. You are what I had in mind when I decided to create you.'”
In 1980, a man by the name of Harold Kushner wrote a book entitled: When Bad Things Happen To Good People. The book became an instant bestseller and the author went on to become a prominent writer and lecturer. This of course is not without good reason. Kushner has after all, dared to broach a highly complex and disconcerting subject.
As its title suggests, the book wrestles with the belief in an Al-mighty, Al-merciful G-d and the dreadful calamities that only, too often befall His treasured earthlings. Especially disturbing to the author are the heartbreaking challenges that dog the upright, kind and innocent men and women, many of them religious and G-d fearing.
The quandary of human suffering and adversity is no small matter. It invariably impacts our perception of G-d and religion, as it deals at its core, with Divine justice. Man’s entire view of human existence and purpose may be influenced by this very issue.
Still, despite the popularity of the book and its author – who have come to be regarded as leading authorities on the subject – the book’s central theory is fundamentally flawed.
In his fervor to exonerate G-d for man’s senseless suffering, the author has stripped Him of His power and responsibility. “We ought not be upset with the Almighty for the pain and suffering in our lives, for He is limited in what He can and cannot do to help,” asserts the author. G-d, in other words, is really not bad; He’s essentially handicapped (Heaven forbid). So much for the term “Al-mighty.”
The absurdity of this philosophy (save for the obvious) is beyond the scope of this forum. Suffice it to say that the Torah makes absolutely no pretences about the reality of adversity and challenge, even as it ascribes to G-d full power and control.
Anyone who has studied the book of Genesis is familiar with the trials and tribulations of the patriarchs. Each of these Biblical giants experienced his own unique set of hardships beginning with Avraham, who as we know was tested no less than ten times.
Yitzchak, to be sure, had his share of trouble as well, not the least of with was his designation as a human sacrifice. He also suffered ongoing antagonism from the king of the Philistines. In addition to his bitter rivalry with his own brother, Ishmael, he was forced to contend with an even uglier rivalry between his two sons; Yaakov and Esau.
But it is Yaakov more than anyone, who personified the epitome of challenge. The Torah describes his many trials and tribulations in elaborate and colorful detail. Beginning with his altercations with his brother Esau – from whom he eventually fled for his life – his ordeal only intensified.
His twenty-years with his uncle Lavan were fraught with backbreaking toil and constant deceit. His encounter with his brother after twenty years of exile, described in last week’s Parsha, left him entirely frazzled, not to mention his wrestling stunt with the angelic force.
His beloved wife Rachel passes away on him before her time. His daughter Dina is seduced and taken from him by Shechem. To add insult to injury, his sons react to the atrocity with excessive violence. They take matters into their own hands and destroy all the males of that city, leaving Yaakov ashamed and terrified of retaliation.
When Yaakov finally returns home to Canaan, he is ready to call it a day – looking forward eagerly to some peace and tranquility. Yet, as our Parsha (Vayeishev) relates, he is overwhelmed by the foremost challenge of his life; the loss of his beloved son Yoseph.
It is noteworthy to recall the words of the tenth century classic commentator Rashi regarding this painful episode: From the contrast of the word “Settled” – used in the Torah in reference to Yaakov’s return to the land of Canaan – which implies permanency, and the word “Sojourn” – used with regards to his fathers stay in the same land – which implies wandering, it is inferred that after his long exile and struggles, Yaakov wished to settle down in tranquility, but the anguish of Yoseph’s kidnapping pounced upon him (Rashi, Genesis 37:2).
Nor are the patriarchs alone singled out for challenge. Rashi proceeds with the following fascinating observation: “Though the righteous seek tranquility the Holy One, Blessed is He, says, ‘are the righteous not satisfied with what awaits them in the world to come that they expect to live at ease in this world as well?'”
How do we explain all this? Would anyone argue in earnest that our patriarchs were not good people? Why did these pillars of humanity deserve to endure hardship? And what do we make of Rashi’s comments that the righteous can expect to suffer?
Perhaps because challenge unlocks our soul’s deepest potentials and unleashes untapped reserves, perhaps adversity elicits our highest and purest level of being, as goes the saying: “Adversity causes some men to break and others to break records,” it is obvious however, from all the above that the Torah does not view adversity as bad or evil.
Among the explanations, is the idea that we are part of a greater whole and must hence sometimes sacrifice our personal tranquility and wellbeing for
G-d’s greater cosmic purpose, as well as the notion that our life in this world is but a tiny fraction of a much greater journey, and that at a later point the score is evened-out.
The reality is that we don’t really know the particular reason for the adversity and challenge in our life. But does that really matter? Since it is obvious from the Torah that challenge is not a bad thing but rather an inevitable part of human life and purpose of existence, what difference does it make whether we know the exact reason of a given challenge?
G-d, clearly, knows what He’s doing with each of us. He is the potter, and we are His clay. He will mold us and make us and expose us to just enough pressures of just the right kind so that we may become a flawless piece of work, to fulfill His good, pleasing and perfect will.
Kushner’s cardinal error, it appears, was to confuse challenge with punishment. To equate adversity and suffering with badness and retribution is clearly a pivotal blunder.
So when life seems hard, and you are being pounded and patted and pushed almost beyond endurance; when your world seems to be spinning out of control; when you feel like you are in a fiery furnace of hardships, or when life seems to smell horrible, think of what a beautiful product is in the making.
The venerable King David, himself no stranger to suffering, has best summarized this basic Jewish ideology in his declaration: “For a moment in His wrath grants life in His favor; weeping will tarry for the night, and joy will come with the morning.”
Even the saddest hours of our lives – that which comes to us as weeping at night – that which we bewail as a calamity – says King David, are but the birth pangs of a future day of sublime happiness and will be greeted with joyous song in the “morning,” i.e., once it has the desired effect on our spirits, for the ways of G-d are all nothing but gifts. His wrath is intended only to make us become more worthy of His eventual favor and hence of life itself.
Most importantly let us not forget that even in our darkest moments of dread and suffering G-d stands at our side firmly and vigilantly, as stated in the familiar chapter of Psalms, chapter 23: “Even if I will walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and your staff – they will comfort me. . .
May the final words of the chapter come into complete fruition: “Only goodness and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life…”, with coming of the righteous Moshiach.