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From Adversity to Improvement

Rosh Hashanah 2016 | MJE East

It is difficult to imagine what it would be like to be wiped out financially, to lose everything you have, including your home. This is what happened recently to someone I know, let’s call him Jim. Jim spent three years and his life savings building up an IT company. The company was based in another city, and Jim did not want to move and ran it from out of town. The employees who were on site stole from the company, and then sabotaged it so they could surreptitiously stage someone they knew to buy out the company. All of Jim’s savings were gone and he was wiped out.

He was crushed, he felt that life had no more meaning, and he wanted to give up on life. He even had suicidal thoughts.

How do you deal with such a blow?   Most people get depressed, are devastated, and feel that the stars have turned against them, that they got the raw end of the deal of random luck.

Yet the Torah teaches us to look at dark times and our struggles in completely different terms.

We have the ability to turn our perspective around, and to ask ourselves: Why am I being put through such a test? What is the Almighty’s plan for me? If we believe there is a G-d, and that G-d is involved in our lives, then the misfortune has to be more than random luck. And if we manage to understand why we are meant to go through the trying situation, then we will come out stronger and perhaps learning the right lesson. Maybe Jim’s sense of self was too invested in his wealth and in his possessions, and he allowed these things to define him. Without them he did not know who he was, and this was the only way of him learning to find that sense of true self, even if it was very painful.

In order to understand how to see adversity from a different perspective, we look to the Torah for guidance and insight, and we turn to the lives of our patriarchs and matriarchs. Abraham and Sarah were given many struggles in their lives in their lives: G-d instructed Abraham to leave everything behind, and to start over in the middle of his life. He gets to the land and there is a famine and he has to leave, putting his family in danger. They were not able to have children, and when they did, there was conflict between their children and grandchildren. But the Torah tells us that these tests were not random. The Almighty purposefully put them through these tests: ‘G-d tested Abraham’ we are told right before Abraham is given his hardest test when he is asked to bind his son Isaac and bring him as an offering. In fact, our sages tell us Abraham was put through ten tests.

Why would a good, loving and benevolent G-d put Avraham and Sarah who has a special purpose and destiny through so much difficulty in their lives?

We want our lives to be a life of leisure and comfort, we want to glide through life with ease and serenity, and if G-d loves us why wouldn’t he give us that? But people who are given the life of leisure, like people who hit it big and win the lottery and have ‘their dream life’ are often miserable. This past January Time magazine had an article about people who win the lottery and they found that 70% of the people wound up going broke a few years later. Jack Whittaker, who owned a construction company before winning the lotter wound up going broke in 4 years, and losing his daughter and granddaughter to drug overdoses. So many people when offered a life of leisure cannot handle it. Why? Because they do not feel productive, they are not challenged, they are not given opportunities to actualize their potential.

The Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in the beginning of “The Path of Hashem’ tells us that each person is born with certain deficiencies, and the purpose life is to ‘fix’ those deficiencies. And the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist who lived two hundred years before the Ramchal teaches us that G-d gives us the circumstances and the challenges in our lives which will give us the opportunity to fix those deficiencies. When we go through challenges we grow as a human being. We are put in trying situations we might not choose ourselves, but that allow us to attain our true potential. Each challenge we face is customized specifically for us for the sole purpose

When I was studying in Jerusalem there was a teacher of mine, a young warm, charismatic and beloved Rabbi who was diagnosed with cancer. We were all shocked because he was in his early 30’s, and we could not believe it. He was away for a number of months in the States to get treatment. Finally we got word that he was in remission everyone was so grateful and relieved. He came back to the school and got up in front of the entire student body and said something shocking. He said that through his illness he learned to truly live for each day and to live life to its fullest. And then he said that he would not have traded this experience for a million dollars. We could not believe what we were hearing, because we did not at first understand this idea that life’s tests are there to teach us a lesson. Rabbi Zechariah was at such a high level of spiritual consciousness that he came not just to a place of total acceptance of his illness, but he even embraced it and valued the experience as one he would not have wanted to forgo.

This process of self-completion is one which is difficult and requires effort and work, and most of us would not choose to do the work, or would not necessarily know what work needs to be done.   And so our life tests are not just opportunities to use these challenges to grow, the Ari tells us that they are customized for the specific purpose of bringing us to actualize our potential. And so the Almighty gives us life situations which are opportunities to actualize those potentials. Each of the patriarchs was given a challenge which made them go against their nature. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler in his writings points out that each of the patriarchs was challenged with a test in their lives that went precisely against their nature. Avraham who embodies lovingkindness was asked to do the most cruel act of brining his son as an offering. Isaac who embodied justice and accountability walked away three times when the neighboring tribes took his wells. And Yaakov who embodied truthfulness had to deal with scoundrels like his brother Esav and his uncle Lavan, and had to use cunning and deceit to outmaneuver them. Each one of them was given a test that made them develop qualities that were counterintuitive for them. It is easier for us to build on our strengths, and we should do so. However a complete person must be able to do things which go against their nature. Sometimes the loving person has to offer touch love, and the disciplined person has to learn to chill and relax. The test are there to teach us to develop in ways we otherwise might not. Some people take these tests and use the lessons they learned to transform their lives in a new directions that they might never have taken otherwise.

I would like to share this message that a mother gave to her daughter when the daughter was going through hard times. She did not know how she was going to make it and wanted to give up; she was tired of fighting and struggling. It seemed as one problem was solved, a new one arose.

Her mother took her to the kitchen. She filled three pots with water and placed each on a high fire. Soon the pots came to boil. In the first she placed carrots, in the second she placed eggs, and in the last she placed ground coffee beans.. She let them sit and boil without saying a word.

In about twenty minutes she turned off the burners. She fished the carrots out and placed them in a bowl. She pulled the eggs out and placed them in a bowl. Then she ladled the coffee out and placed it in a bowl. Turning to her daughter, she asked, ‘ Tell me what you see.’

‘Carrots, eggs, and coffee,’ she replied.

Her mother explained that each of these objects had faced the same adversity: boiling water. Each reacted differently. The carrot went in strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after being subjected to the boiling water, it softened and became weak. The egg had been fragile. Its thin outer shell had protected its liquid interior, but after sitting through the boiling water, its inside became hardened. The ground coffee beans were unique, however. After they were in the boiling water, they had changed the water.   Here is the story of someone who changed the water.

In 2003, Kris Karr was a 32-year-old New Yorker just enjoying life. But then, a regular checkup at her doctor’s office resulted in a diagnosis of a rare and incurable Stage IV cancer called epithelioid hemangioendothelioma, existing in her liver and lungs. Instead of succumbing to the disease, Carr decided to challenge her diagnosis head on. She attacked her cancer with a brand new nutritional lifestyle, and turned her experience into a series of successful self-help books and documentaries. Eventually, she launched her own wellness website which is followed by over 40,000 people. Today, Karr is celebrating a decade of ‘thriving with cancer’ and is now revered as one of the most prominent experts on healthy living.

So what can we learn from the idea of seeing life’s tests as opportunities, since we hope that we never have to go through the life-altering events that we have been talking about. Life’s tests can be upheavals in our life, a professional setback, a breakup in a relationship, a personal loss, a health challenge, but they can also be smaller events that happen to us. When a person says something mean to us, our first reaction is to lash back. This is problematic because the Torah tells us that we cannot take revenge. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that a way to get us to avoid lashing back it is to ask ourselves why G-d is putting us through this upsetting moment. I once had an experience where someone was very impatient with me, and was becoming very unpleasant. I was getting very ticked off and was about to tell them, in not so nice a tone, to leave me alone. I then remembered that the day before I had been impatient with them. Who was I to expect them to be super patient with me? This test was a lesson to me not to dish out that which I did not want to have dished on me, and to strive to be more patient. The test can also be not to get upset at the computer that crashed, the bookcase that was broken in the delivery or even the bus I missed. Those annoyances that make our day to day life frustrating and upsetting can be turned around to be seen as another test to see whether I can keep my cool, continue to be patient or just simply accept that I am not in control.

Think of this: Which am I? Am I the carrot that seems strong, but with pain and adversity do I wilt and become soft and lose my strength?

Am I the egg that starts with a malleable heart, but changes with the heat? Did I have a fluid spirit, but after a death, a breakup, a financial hardship or some other trial, have I become hardened and stiff? Does my shell look the same, but on the inside am I bitter and tough with a stiff spirit and hardened heart?

Or am I like the coffee bean? The bean actually changes the hot water, the very circumstance that brings the pain. When the water gets hot, it releases the fragrance and flavor. If you are like the bean, when things are at their worst, you get better and change the situation around you.

When we view our lives through a spiritual lens and see the role of the Almighty in the events in our lives we are able to turn adversity and anguish into acceptance and improvement, and that is a lot better way to live. Rosh Hashanah is a time of year when we reflect back on our lives, and when we look at our attitudes toward life.   This year we can strive to change our attitude, and when life throws us curveballs, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, or getting upset at life, others or G-d, let’s strive to look at those moments as experiences that were put in our lives to teach us something. With this outlook we can learn to accept life’s challenges, and use them to grow into better human beings and to become the best me I can be. Shanah Tovah

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