Please Stop Being Surprised
There are few sentences in the English language that convey as complex a set of emotions as the words “I told you so.”
On the surface of those four simple words is absolutely vindication. They taste so sweet as they role off our tongues. But beneath them is the pain of someone else's failure, and the harsh truth that we were powerless to help before the failure occurred.
Of course, there is are no ends to what a person might do to avoid hearing “I told you so.” One of my students told me that he has studied harder for these finals than any other in his life. “Why?”, I asked. He explained that he had narrowly convinced his parents to allow him to attend an event, despite his parents wanting him to stay home and study. His mother warned him “Don't make me say I told you so...”
To avoid the horror of proving his mother right, he endeavored to ensure that his grades were better than ever before.
Consider, however, the inverse. With Hashem's help, this student will succeed. He will turn to his parents with the joy of his own vindication. His parents, however, will experience the strangest and most perverse form of conflicted, simultaneous shame and pride. Their deepest desire is to see their son grow to be independent and successful – which now comes head-to-head with wanting their negativity to proven right.
In these moments, parents, spouses and friends have a choice to make. Either we admit that we were overly pessimistic, or we double down and tell our loved ones that they “got lucky that time”, but “that's not the way the world works.” Naturally, even this second option is mostly for their best interests. But it's undeniably challenging to witness someone succeed, when we were convened that they would not.
Essentially, we are frustratingly comfortable seeing our anticipated failure coming to be. And we are routinely confounded and surprised by success.
Of course, there is good precedent for this orientation: We appear to fail far more than we succeed. Tragically, this also means that for many people, considering and attempting to do anything other than fail is deemed futile and hopelessly unrealistic.
All of this, however, is one gigantic Yetzer Hara.
This is the Yetzer Hara telling us that the rise in anti-semitism in the US is beginning of the end of American Jewry. This is the Yetzer Hara telling us that our recent war against Hamas is proof that we are no closer to peace, freedom and redemption. We will “mow the lawn” forever.
The same internal voice is mourning the loss of unaffiliated Jews in the diaspora, the demise of civil discourse and the end of nuanced conversations. It's bemoaning the absence of leadership in the older generation, and the narcism of the youth.
This voice is particularly devious, because the facts that it presents might well be correct. But simply presenting facts alone is not enough to determine is thougthful response to those realities.
Perhaps we are indeed witnessing the end of US Jewry. Perhaps Israel is still uncountable generations away from tranquility. Perhaps it's all true.
What does that mean to us? What should it mean?
The Yetzer Hara argues implicitly that we should wallow in our failure. It's the amorphous underlying anger that says “we are barely a drop in the massive ocean of disarray and disillusionment. Why bother?!”
But that voice is dead wrong. And we have plenty evidence to present:
In our generation, we have witnessed the miraculous resurrection of our people from the ashes of Treblinka. We have returned to rebuild our homeland after millennia of exile. Or as Rav Lichtenstein famously wrote “what would the Ramban have given to head a Yeshivat Hesder?” Sure, there are issues. But for moment before we react, we should reflect on the distance we have traveled, and the immense Hashgacha that has brought us here.
Without question, our generation is more materially prosperous than any since the Explosion from Spain in 1492. The world of Torah now is stronger now than anytime in the past seventy years, and it's getting stronger by the day.
There's a well know story illustrating this truth that has become lore in the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland:
In the years following the Holocaust, after the destruction of the Telshe Yeshiva in Europe, Rav Gifter and Reb Elya Meir Bloch we’re in a seforim store in New York. Reb Elya Meir asked for a Ketzos Hachoshen, and the storekeeper brought out a dusty old copy telling them, “This is one of the last few Ketzos Hachoshens in America, and likely the last one ever sold. It will never be printed again; Torah learning is over.”
Reb Elya Meir said nothing, and after leaving the store he turned to Rav Gifter. “The man is right. According to any historical and logical standards, Torah will not be rebuilt again. The Ketzos will not pass a printing press again. But the Torah does not follow any laws of nature. Torah comes from a higher Source and its perpetuance cannot ever be tamed in the ways other studies can. No matter how bleak things look today, the Torah is certain to rebound and once again be the pride and joy of Klal Yisrael.”
Herein lies the great failure of the Meraglim. They retuned from Eretz Canaan and reported that it was impossible to conquer the land Israel. The nation there were far too numerous. Far too powerful. There is no way.
The Aish Koshesh notes that when Yehoshua and Kalev respond they don't say “no it's not true, they're lying.” They don't dispute the facts. They simply argue about what to do about it. Yes, the nations there are powerful. Yes, we will face hardships. But why does that mean we ought to concede or even consider defeat?
עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ – We will ascend to the land, because we can!
The natural laws have never applied to us. Indeed, that is precisely the issue with with Hashem is most frustrated:
עַד אָנָה יְנַאֲצֻנִי הָעָם הַזֶּה וְעַד אָנָה לֹא יַאֲמִינוּ בִי בְּכֹל הָאֹתוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ Hashem said to Moshe, “How long will this people despise me? and how long will they not believe in me, for all the signs which I have worked among them?...”
Essentially, Hashem is bemoaning the fact that life for the Jewish people is infinitely better than it ever was in Egypt. What more should He do to prove that life is good, and getting better? And yet, the people are still saying it's all a fluke. They're still not convinced that they world is supposed to be good and that success is reason enough to be willing to move ahead.
In so many ways, our generation is plagued by the same Yetzer Hara. We struggle to see the steady march of positivity as the way life is supposed to be. We are so quick to focus on the negatives and take the positives for granted, or as an accident, rather than humbly and gratefully acknowledging that things are getting better.
None of this is to say that challenges do not exist. Of course they do. But our base line may be a little off kilter. Why are we so much more surprised by success than failure. And when we don't succeed, why should we revel in the “I told you so” rather than mourning it and endeavoring to overcome it?
They tell a story of the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek. Once, when he was a little boy, he was playing outside with his friends. And as boys do, they made up a somewhat dangerous game. They placed a plank up against a building and took turns attempting to run as close to the top as possible.
Unbeknownst to the boys, the Alter Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek’s grandfather, was watching them from the window of his study. After watching the game, the Rebbe asked someone to bring his grandson to him. When the boy came into the room and the Alter Rebbe asked him, obviously proud of how well he had performed in the game, “Tell me Mendel’eh, how is it that you were able to reach the top of the plank while none of the other boys could do it?”
He answered, “Zayde, all of the other boys looked around them as they began walking up the plank. So they quickly became frightened of falling and came back down. But I just looked at the top and ran for it, without looking to the sides at all.”
Yes, things are shaky. We have no idea how Jewish destiny operates. But none of that is a reason to feel defeated or deflated. Hashem is begging of us, “Please stop being surprised. The world is good, it's getting better by the day. All you have to do is be willing to run to the top.”