This week's parsha
My friend Aviva came to visit Chaya Mushka and me in the hospital. Just four weeks earlier, my daughter was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, a chromosomal disorder. Only 5 percent to 10 percent of babies with this condition survive their first year.
“I just don’t understand why this would happen to you,” she said to me. We sat facing one another in the NICU. I held Chaya Mushka and kicked the rocking chair into motion. “You and Sholom Meir seem to be such good people ... ”
“But what if we were chosen to host her? What if her soul selected us as her parents for its short mission on earth, then to return ‘home,’ unscathed and pristine?” The words slipped from my lips, still unprocessed: “What if she’s our blessing?”
“But if you don’t listen to Me,” says G‑d, “I will direct upon you panic, inflammation, fever, disease and anguish. You will sow your seed in vain, and [if it does sprout,] your enemies will eat it ... ” (Leviticus 26:14,16).
And that’s not it. The Torah continues with close to another 30 verses filled with promises of retribution -- they’re actually difficult to read.
Surprisingly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi makes the following comment about the Torah’s harsh words: “In truth, they are nothing but blessings!”
He then proceeds to explain many of the verses as blessings. For example, “Ten women will bake bread in one oven” (ibid. verse 26). In its simplest sense, this verse is referring to the extreme poverty that will afflict us if we abandon G‑d’s ways. But Rabbi Schneur Zalman interprets the verse as follows: We will meditate on the oneness of G‑d (the oven of “one”) with such intensity, that all our 10 soul-powers will be consumed with a fiery love for Him. Then our Torah study (Torah is often referred to in the Scriptures as “bread”) will “bake” and marinate in this love.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman uncovers the hidden blessings hidden behind the guise of misfortune. To him, it was obvious and apparent that the curses must be taken beyond face value.
Interestingly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman wasn’t the first person to see through apparently unkind wording. The Talmud (Moed Katan 9a) tells us the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, famed Mishnaic sage and author of the Zohar, who sent his son Elazar to receive blessings from two of his students, Rabbi Yonatan and Rabbi Yehudah. But instead of hearing from them blessings, he heard curses. “May it be G‑d’s will that you will sow and not reap!” they proclaimed, and then continued with a litany of unpleasant wishes.
An astonished Elazar repeated to his father the rabbis’ curses.
“Curses?” responded Rabbi Shimon. “Those were all blessings!
“ ‘You will sow and not reap’ means that you will have children and they will not die ... ” And Rabbi Shimon proceeded to decode all the “curses,” patiently explaining to his son the blessings inherent within them.
It was certainly quite clever for Rabbi Shimon to decode the riddles and expose the blessings. But why did the sages speak in such a roundabout way? Why didn’t they bless him in language that he could understand?
Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, asks just this question. He concludes that the sages’ blessings were of such a lofty and sublime nature that they couldn’t be expressed directly. They had to go through the medium of “bad” before they could be exposed as good.
If G‑d is good and He orchestrates our lives with purpose and meaning, then there can be only two types of experiences that He generates: a) good things that we perceive as good; b) good things that we perceive as bad.
And here’s the part that seems completely counterintuitive (or maybe not): the good that’s perceived as bad is in fact a more potent good.
Compare your personal journal to your published autobiography. The autobiography probably makes a lot more sense to an audience of readers. But your journal is so raw and genuine, so you.
When G‑d communicates with us from a place closer to His essence, we don’t understand Him clearly. Was that a hug? ’Cause it felt like a slap in the face . . .
In fact, the Talmud (Yoma 23a) tells us that people who are able to remain happy despite their suffering will merit to see G‑d in His full glory during the messianic era. These resilient people don’t let frustration and disappointment erode their belief that everything that comes from G‑d is good. Since they embrace all of G‑d -- the part they understand, and the part they so don’t -- they eventually experience the totality of G‑d’s light. They’ve proven that they can embrace even the most raw and intense parts of G‑d.
So, how do we expose the sweet good that’s entangled in a bad wrap? The Chassidic masters teach that by merely trusting that there is a potent kernel of good hidden in the pain, we begin to disassemble the screen that veils it.
“Why did this happen to me?” There are two ways to ask this same question. One is rhetorical, a proclamation: “This is wrong and shouldn’t have happened to me.” The second is authentic: “I wonder why this is happening to me. How can this be good for me?” And just exploring the possibility of good draws it to the surface.
To ask the second type of question, we need to train ourselves to look through the external trappings of an experience and capture its depth.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was clearly a man of unparalleled depth. He authored the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism. That’s why it was so natural for him to see the curse as a blessing. He didn’t need to reconcile the shell of the words with their inner meaning -- to him the shell was completely transparent.What we perceive as bad is in truth the higher expression of G‑d’s kindness
Rabbi Schneur Zalman authored the Tanya, the primary work of chassidic philosophy. Like Rabbi Shimon, he saw everything with profundity, plumbing the depths of any notion. That’s why Rabbi Schneur Zalman read the verses of admonition and immediately entered into their innermost understanding, where all is good, and where what we perceive as bad is in truth the higher expression of G‑d’s kindness. Like Rabbi Shimon, he didn’t have to train himself to see bad as good; to him it was as clear as the sun is bright.
Studying Chassidic teachings, the depth of the Torah’s wisdom, trains our eyes with incredible depth perception, and sensitizes us to see the good even when we’re disappointed.
And nevertheless, let’s bless each other that we all be recipients of only good -- and good that we perceive as good!