How Do You Move On When Hashem Lets You Down?
Once, during a trade fair, a number of rich merchants gathered in an inn. They were all Chassidim of various courts, and of course, each of them told stories of the wonders and miracles done by their particular Rebbe. Reb Shmuel Gurary, a Chossid of the Rebbe Maharash, was present as well. When it was his turn to tell a story, he said:
“Once, someone offered me a serious business proposition in timber harvesting and sales. It would require an enormous investment, but could generate a tremendous return if all went well. The risk was great, but so was the potential reward. Of course, I sought the advice of the Rebbe Maharash. The Rebbe told me to invest, and that’s what I did. Not long afterwards, the investment fell through and I lost everything I had put into the venture.”
Waiting for a miraculous punchline, the others were surprised that with these words, Reb Shmuel concluded his tale and fell silent.
“Well... What was the miracle?” they asked.
Reb Shmuel explained: “The miracle is that even after this story he was still my Rebbe. I remained his Chossid. I trusted my Rebbe exactly as I did before.”
To believe in someone or something when things are working out is simple, intuitive and obvious. It is an entirely different endeavor to continue to trust and believe when our experience is tinted with failure.
This challenge is not academic. It is intensely practical, and pertains to everything from marriage to children, from bosses to employees, from friends to neighbors.
What do we do when someone has let us down and lost our trust? What do we do when Hashem has let us down?
This was Avraham's challenge. Hashem tells him to abandon everything he knows and move to the land of Canaan. It would be another twenty-five years until Hashem speaks to Avraham again. In the interim, Avraham and Sarah experience famine, abduction (and attempted rape), and a family fallout with Lot.
This disappointing experience is hinted from the very beginning of Avraham's story. The Torah tells us that: וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן – And they departed to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. Why the repetition? The Chasm Sofer (עה״ת לך לך ד״ה ויצאו) saw in this pasuk a profound and subtle life lesson hidden in the vowels of the word כנען. He explains that Avraham journeyed to the land of כְּנַעַן – with a (patach) פתח under the נ. But they arrive in the land of כְּנָֽעַן – with a (kamatz) קמץ under the נ. What's the difference between these two vowelizations? Patach means open, kamatz means closed. Avraham traveled to a Canaan of wide open opportunities and great dreams. He arrived in a Canaan of struggles and challenges. Despite all of this, Avraham maintains, against all odds, that Hashem is still his God.
How did Avraham develop such fortitude? How do we move on when Hashem, or our children or spouse or parent has let us down?
Perhaps the secret lies in the origins of Avraham's relationship with Hashem.
Chazal describe how Avraham began seeking out Hashem from the age of three. What possessed him to go up against the world with no Jewish education, no family support and a wealth of opposition? We might assume that there was something special about him – a perhaps an Artscroll gedolim story background. Perhaps he made a bracha on his mother’s milk and made a siyyum on Shas before his bar mitzvah? Not true says the Rambam (הל׳ ע״ז פרק א׳): He grew up as an idol worshipper just like his family, but he was curious about the world he inhabited.
The Midrash explains this bold curiosity with a parable: Imagine a man walking in a forest, and somewhere in a clearing he sees a בירה דולקת – a house alight. There is only one thing that the man knows with certainty – that someone built the house. He knows nothing about the ideas, ideology or opinions of the builder. There is no indicator as to whether the builder is male or female, tall or short, married, single, liberal or conservative. Only that a builder must exist.
That’s how Avraham sees the world. It exists with design, so it must have a Designer, and he wishes to know the Builder a little better. It’s a powerful observation. Avraham seeks out a relationship with Hashem because the world is resonating with purpose, and he wants to live a meaningful life.
But if we examine the words of the Midrash carefully, there is a description of this house/world that might provide us with some practical insight. The Medrash calls the world בירה דולקת – a house alight. Even in English, there is an ambiguity to this description.
The Maharal (דרוש לשבת הגדול) explains that Avraham's search for Hashem was driven by observing the world up in flames. But the Shelah HaKadosh (לך לך תורה אור ל״ד) explains that the words בירה דולקת mean the lights are on: “כי האירה מכבודו יתברך” – the world is illuminated with the Presence of Hashem.
There are always two ways to look at the world: Either that the lights are on, or that it’s up in flames – בירה דולקת implies both. Rather than choosing to explain it one way or another, Chazal in their genius chose to convey the profundity of Avraham’s understanding with this ambiguity. Because no better description fits our world than simultaneously existing with the lights on and burning down at the same time.
Look at the Jewish world in the US right now. We have more yeshivos, schools and Torah learning than ever before. The lights are clearly on. But just as obvious is the shocking rate of assimilation, and ever-growing anti-semitism. The State of Israel is booming and thriving as a Torah, technological and ethical superpower – the lights are certainly on! But our beloved State of Israel also face more criticism, cynicism and condemnation than any other nation in history. Entire countries are dedicated to burning it down.
Avraham's great Chiddush is that his relationship with Hashem is not dependent, and it's not transactional. He expects nothing from Hashem. He makes no assumptions about what Hashem is or isn't or should be doing. He just want to get to know Him and be with Him. Avraham wants to fill his life with Godliness. There is no prerequisite of understanding Hashem's ways for any of this to occur.
In the deepest way, Avraham teaches us that the value of a relationship far outweighs any particular tangible benefits it might yield.
This is true for all of our relationships with Hashem. But the lesson can well be applied to the world of Bein Adam L'Chaveiro as well. All too often, in our desperate attempts to incriminate and understand the “why's and how's” of someone else's words or actions, we forget that relationships should transcend our understanding. Relationships should certainly be able transcend mistakes.
The Zohar explains that a Chasid is a מתחסד עם קונו – one who displays kindness to Hashem. Avaraham – the pillar of Chesed – loved Hashem even though he didn't understand Him. Even though things didn't always work out.
This, of course, is the miracle of Reb Shmuel Gurary. It's the miracle of every Jew. I can love you, trust you, believe in you just the same – even after you let me down. For this reason, the Navi (ישעיהו מ”א, ח) tells us that Hashem calls us “The Children of Avraham, my Beloved” – זֶרַע אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי. Hashem should help us to realize our capacity to love Him and each other, no strings attached.