The Easy Life – Versus the Meaningful Life

 “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”

-Bruce Lee

In one of the most famous mass performance reviews in written history, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses doing a recap and overview of the Jewish people since they left Egypt, and the review was hardly favorable. In re-telling one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke against God when they said: “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.

This is tantamount to claiming that the whole thing was a setup from the start, in that God freed us from Egypt, only to deliver us into the hands of a much worse enemy and certain death. We have the luxurious vantage point of having read “The Book” (OK, and we saw the movie too), so we know the story has a happy ending. But, in defense of the masses, which had been manipulated into a state of terror by the spies, can we empathize with their pain when they “claimed” God hated them? What was really going on?

The Longing Underneath the Complaint

When our children come home from school, smarting from a bad grade or being disciplined, for example, and they cry out with unwavering certainty, “My teacher hates me!” are they making a statement of objective fact  – or are they really expressing an unspoken fear of not being loved by the teacher? What is the unexpressed longing underneath their complaints?  

While it’s very challenging to remain centered, conscious and non-reactive when someone is bitterly complaining, look under the hood of a complaint – especially an irrational one – and you will likely find someone who is insecure, wondering if he or she is loved. Just to be clear, I don’t regard terrorism and anti-Semitism as “bad behavior masquerading as a cry for love.” I can’t go there. On the other hand, disciplining myself to ignore how a message is delivered so as not to lose sight of the underlying expression of a legitimate need, is a choice I make in my relationships.  

If God Only Loved Us…

When seen in that favorable and compassionate light, then, you could consider the irrational complaints and accusations the Jewish people made against God, as evidence of very insecure people questioning their relationship with God. In their minds, in their logic, it made sense that if God really loved them, he could have kicked the Egyptians out of Egypt and let the Jews live free and safe in the fertile Nile delta. If God really loved the Jewish people, why were they the ones wandering in the desert?   Why were they attacked and beset by people trying to destroy them? And why did they have to face years of battle to establish their homeland? At Mt. Sinai, God called us His beloved. Really? Is this what love looks like?

When my husband was a little boy, he lived in the DP (Displaced Person’s) Camps in Germany after the war. “The bad Germans lost the war,” he was told. And yet it was these “bad” Germans who walked around freely, seemingly doing as they pleased, while he could only peer in bewilderment at them from behind barbed wire, confined to the grounds of a concentration camp that was hastily upgraded to house the Jews that had nowhere else to go. The little boy was confused. Is this what winning looks like?

And when we read the news today, with worldwide terror a commonplace event, and anti-Semitism rising up with a terrifying velocity, isn’t it possible to wonder whether God really loves us as well? Like – what’s the deal? So are life’s challenges proof of God’s hate or evidence of His love?

A Mother’s Blessing

Every Friday night I lovingly lay my hands on my daughter’s head and I ask that God should bless her like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Isn’t that beautiful? But if you think about it, how exactly were our foremothers “blessed”? They had lives of unbelievable challenges, hardships and adversities that seemed much more like curses than blessings, as well as having to endure dysfunctional family dynamics that would compete with any sensational tabloids we see today. Why would I want any of that for my daughter? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to find a better role model? I racked my brain to come up with a female figure of merit and distinction in any arena that would exemplify an “easy” life and I couldn’t. And not in the fictional world either.

But then I found her – a beloved and famous young woman who has not just the perfect easy life, but the perfect body, long flowing hair, flawless skin, adoring faithful boyfriend, great clothes, loyal and subordinate friends, cute pink car – complete with its own carrying case. In case you didn’t figure it out, it’s Barbie. Suddenly the catchy pop lyrics sound in my head: “I’m a Barbie girl. In a Barbie world. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.” Now how does that sound as a utopia? And yet, that is what the Jews were complaining about. In essence, if God loved them, then they should have been able to live like Barbie and Ken – but in Egypt.

Life’s Bigger Purpose

God had – and has – other plans for us. He wants us to have a real, meaningful and fulfilling life. God wants our lives to shimmer with transcendence and holiness, endowed with purpose and service. God wants us to have a life where we overcome adversity, where we choose and grow. As Rilke said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”

You can’t move up the ladder by being a plastic doll or yearning for a life of ease. And so, while our forefathers and mothers didn’t have easy lives, they had profoundly meaningful and spiritual lives, lives that charted our very course and destiny, and whose qualities are embedded in our spiritual DNA. When we don’t confuse the good life with an easy life, then we can embrace challenges as a means of self-discovery. And when we don’t expect our lives to be simple, then we can tap into our significance. In giving us the Torah, you could say that God was the first life coach ever – exhorting us to live our lives by design and not by default. That sure looks like love to me.

And therefore, while the complaint of the Jews in the desert against God was perhaps understandable, in the end, it was ultimately unjustifiable – because the longing underneath the complaint equated easy street with God’s love, and adversity and challenge with God’s “hatred”. So even if its origin was fear, such thinking was distorted and immature. And when others were looped into the negativity, these complaints were rightfully deserving of Moses’ derision.  

Whenever you may face individual and national challenges, do not fall prey to insecurity that doubts God’s love and connection. Remind yourself of times in your life where you have endured suffering that led to blessings or growth, and ponder the ineffable survival and spirit of the Jewish people over the millennia. Life is not a “set up.” The Kotzker Rebbe is famous for saying that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. But don’t worry – that’s how the light gets in.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Think of a time that you acted out or behaved in a certain, which really was a defense mechanism for how you were truly feeling. Write down the adjectives to describe your behavior, and then alongside it, write down the adjectives that represented what was really going on in your head and heart.
  1. With the above in mind, think about a situation where someone else behaved towards you or responded with the negative behavior that was similar to yours. Knowing that your behavior did not represent how you were actually feeling, rewrite that situation and how you feel towards that person when you believe that their true feelings were hurt, fear, insecurity (etc.), rather than rudeness, anger or blame (etc.).

 

  1. When in your life did someone push you well out of your comfort zone, and as much as you may have resented it at the time, you eventually came to recognize strengths in yourself you would not have discovered without that challenge? How can you apply this lesson to situations you are now facing where you would rather take the “easy” path than the one less traveled?

 

Chukat – Finding Meaning in the Mystery

The best teachers are those who show you where to look but don’t tell you what to see.”

Alexandra K. Trenfor

Forty-two is the number of stops we had during our forty years in the desert, with some stops lasting a few days, and some for years. It is said that each of us also has forty-two stops in the journey of our lives. After my Bat Mitzvah, and obligatory party feted by champagne and my family’s business friends, I was released at last from the obligation of having anything more to do with Judaism. And so my Jewish journey had a stop that lasted for the next 25 years.

The Wake-Up Call

Fast forward to my mid-thirties, and I was at a “duty funeral” for the wife of someone my fiancé knew. I could not have anticipated that the death of a stranger would be a life-changing event for me. Hearing how active and vital this woman was in the Jewish community and feeling alarmed over the impact and void left by her death, my heart awakened and, much to my surprise, I felt I wanted to make a difference.

But how? Until that moment, I didn’t even identify as Jewish, much less being part of a community. And so I started on my spiritual journey again, making a series of stops here and there, looking for my Jewish identity and yearning for connection.

For a while, my journey took me to a synagogue, which had an unusual custom. The rabbi’s sermon was interactive and participatory. Once again, I could not have anticipated how a rabbi’s sermon would have a life-altering effect, but it did, and the sermon in question happened to be the Torah portion, “Chukat,” otherwise known as the “Red Heifer.”

The command to find a perfect and completely red cow, without a single white hair on its body (try to find one), sacrifice it and use its ashes for ritual purification are incomprehensible and irrational, in that the same ritual results in opposite effects – it causes both purification and contamination.

Upon hearing this, a man stood up and said, angrily, “What is this, Nazi Germany, that we just have to follow blindly orders that make no sense?” I looked around at the heads nodding in agreement and a silent rabbi. Before I even knew what I was doing, I was on my feet protesting the comparison of God to Hitler and the laws of the Torah to the laws of Nuremberg. The rabbi sincerely thanked me for my “God-oriented comment” and I sat down, my face flush and tears oddly in my eyes.

If one’s agenda is to conclude that Torah is arcane, obsolete and without relevance or purpose, and if you want to view those who live a Torah–observant life as blindly following irrational orders, then this Torah portion, Chukat, fits the bill.

People tend to think that Torah laws come in two categories – rational and irrational, laws that make sense and are good to live by – and everything else. Once we determine that something is “irrational,” we so-called “rational beings” feel free – obligated, even – to discard it and dismiss anyone who takes it seriously.

An Inconvenient Truth

But the problem with that much “certainty” is that it closes off exploration, and it shuts off possibility. You have come to the end of the line of inquiry, and you are also intellectually dishonest because you are selective with irrationality.

Where is this so-called world of “reason” to be found? Anyone who thinks we don’t live in an irrational world has not had to apply for a driver’s permit in Pennsylvania or had to try a legal case in Rhode Island (where the courts shut down every week because there are insufficient sheriffs to unlock the courtrooms), or had to deal with divorce clients.

And if I were a truly rational person, I would never eat foods that I know are bad for me. I would never use negativity to try to create positive change and I wouldn’t bother taking off glasses that weigh two ounces before I weighed myself. But I live an irrational life. We all do, and we just accept that quality in ourselves.

But the laws of the Red Heifer and many laws for which we see no rational basis, are not irrational. They are, rather, “supra-rational,” meaning that they are outside of rationality. It’s just not “figureoutable” and your attitude to that gap between you and the unknowable is a good indicator of where you are in your faith and relationship with God.

And so, if you want an example of the ability to live with the mystery of the supra-rational, and to find deep meaning and fulfillment in the encounter with another realm, then this Torah portion, Chukat, is also the Torah portion that fits that bill as well.

The Covered and the Uncovered

Fast-forward my life another 20 years, and many more stops, to by being at an Orthodox wedding. On the chair was a pamphlet explaining the different parts of the ceremony for people who may be unfamiliar with the customs of Orthodox weddings, and I read the description of the “bedecken,” which takes place right before the ceremony when the groom looks at his bride and then covers the bride’s face with a veil. With this simple gesture, the groom is making a profound promise to his bride: I will cherish and respect not only the “you” that is revealed to me, but also that about you, which is “covered” from me. As I bond with you in marriage, I am committed to all of you – all of the time.

And I joyfully realized that this, at last, was the answer to the man who compared God to the Nazis. When we, the Jewish people, stood at Mt. Sinai and accepted Torah, we became eternally betrothed to God, to the parts of God that are revealed, as well as to the parts of God that are covered – to all of the parts of God – all of the time.

That is the basis of true commitment, because no relationship, however deep and intimate, can fully uncover or completely unmask another. We contain unmapped territories, hidden even from ourselves. How much more so with God?

And when we accept that, then the very questions we ask change. We don’t have to be churlish and demand instant answers to everything, especially since answers can trivialize serious issues and are far from soul satisfying.

So when you are challenged, frustrated, afraid or uncertain when aspects of God, or your spouse, or yourself, or life are covered and unrevealed to you, or seem irrational or supra-rational, do not fall into an easy and false certainty that cuts off possibility and stops your journey to growth and transformation.

Embrace the struggle that is part of a nuanced and complex life. Be humble and stay open to the lesson. As the poet Rilke said, “Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart…. Live in the question.” May we all be poets in our soul, find meaning in living with and within mystery, and keep our journeys going!

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. We all encounter situations that we can’t understand. Think about something you have been asked to do that doesn’t make any sense to you, then write down what positive lessons you can learn from doing something that you may not understand yet is important to someone or something else.
  1. Now think about your own needs. What is something you ask of someone else that may not make rational sense but makes a difference to you? How does it make you feel when someone complies with this request even though it is not something this person would think to do on his or her own?
  1. Everyone in our lives knows us in a different way. Some of our characteristics are more revealed, some very concealed–sometimes even from ourselves. Write down five things about yourself that few, if any, know. How do you think people would react if they did know these parts of you?