Thursday, November 7, 2013

G-d's Free Pass on Life's Tests

By: Shayna Chana Hulkower

I was recently catching up with an old friend over some delicious instant coffee at a local cafe (only in Israel), with a close friend. There was a pause in the conversation, she took a deep breath, and shared with me some problems she was having with her parents. Like many Jews who were raised one way, and then decided to become more observant, her parents were giving her a very hard time about her new lifestyle. She was distraught that her once close, loving relationship with her family was devolving into something you would expect to see on Jerry Springer. "Why does it have to be this way?" she asked out loud.

There are two types of uncomfortable situations in life: the ones we put ourselves in and the ones G-d puts us in. Rav Shlomo Wolbe says when we act less than tzaddik-like, we can find ourselves in situations where we are forced to make an uncomfortable decision. For example, rather than being honest and ending a relationship you know has no potential with someone after a few dates, you stick around for whatever reason (unsolicited advice side note - this is why being shomer negia is always a good idea!), and after being with that person for much longer, you still realize you don't want to marry them, and are forced to break up with them after they have invested so much time and energy into you and the relationship. These types of situations are easier to rationalize, because as long as you are honest with yourself, you will know how you got there.

Then there are the instances where you really have no idea why or how you are put in a situation.  I'm not talking about things like having a stranger fall asleep on you on the subway and deciding whether to push them off or let them shluff. I mean the really big things in life: a loved one getting sick, a parent who treats you in a hurtful way, a terrorizing boss. Unfortunately, almost everyone will find themselves in a situation where they say to themselves, "What on earth did I do to deserve this?!"

The answer is - you didn't.

All of us are here because there is something we didn't get right in a previous life. We can't ever really know what our tikkun is in this world, but chances are, if we are in a painful or upsetting situation, it is probably on purpose, and therefore, by doing the right thing, we are bringing ourselves closer to accomplishing our purpose in life. This may be cold comfort when in the middle of a painful experience, but if we can keep this idea in mind, it should help us to navigate through rough waters.
There are a number of explanations as to why we are put in uncomfortable situations: Rav Dessler explains in Michtav MeEliyahu that for most people, many of the lo tiseh - 'don't do' mitzvot aren't really such a challenge. That is, how many of us are really going to commit murder if given the opportunity. However, there are many more that we have real free will as to whether or not we'll actually commit. For example, you are buying an item at a store and the cashier accidentally gives you an extra $20 too much back - for many people there is a real temptation to keep the money, especially when you are short on cash. The main purpose of being in Olam Hazeh (this world), is that we are supposed to get through challenges in life, in order that we feel like we earned an awesome experience in the after-life.  So right away, we can see that challenges, big and small, are part and parcel for life.

The Ramban says that there are only tests in our lives when there is a suffeik (doubt) - that is, the person has total free will to choose right or wrong. He goes on to say that G-d only tests tzaddikim (holy people) when He knows they will succeed, and is only doing it because He wants to give the holy person more zchar (merit). Why should G-d give out free mitzvah points? Isn't the whole point of this world to work hard and earn Olam Haba? The fact is, that if someone has the potential to do the right thing, how can they ever benefit from that unless they are put in a situation to actually test it? This is an important insight to keep in mind. We have to be given experiences to live up to our potential. If G-d puts you in a really unpleasant situation, keep in mind that it's because He knows you can succeed. It's up to us to get ourselves across the finish line.

Knowing that the Creator of the Universe believes in our capacity to do the right thing, well, that should help to boost our confidence at least a little bit. Sure, it might not take the sting out of the situation, but it should at least help us to  get through it with grace and dignity. And maybe make it a little easier to behave properly the next time someone falls asleep on us on the bus.