I was born at a turbulent time in history. The Nazi Party had gained ascendancy in Germany, the winds of war were blowing throughout Europe, and we felt the fury of the impending storm in Hungary, the country of my birth. There had always been anti-Semitism in Hungary, but we had managed to live with it, even as one endures inclement weather. But now, the powerful Nazi influence transformed anti-Semitism into a politically correct ideology. Overnight, the world became a hunting ground; we Jews became the hunted and the remainder of the world, the hunters...
My paternal grandparents, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, were all killed in the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. Through the grace of G-d, my parents, siblings, and I survived and made our way to the blessed American shores. With the passage of time, my life returned to normal, and we, who only yesterday were the hunted, became builders. Yes, we were committed to build a better, kinder, more peaceful world. The years passed quickly and I soon became a bride. I married a magnificent man, a spiritual giant, a third cousin (with the same family name), also a survivor of the Holocaust, and together, we continued to build. We built synagogues, schools, and communities, and most important, we built lives. The struggle was no longer one of mere survival, but rather, for more meaning and more purpose...
"What is life all about?" At one time or another, all of us wrestle with that challenge. Having no clear answer we tend to dismiss this question and continue our humdrum existence or attempt to define our lives through metaphors such as "Life is a deck of cards, and you have to play the hand you are dealt," or "Life is a marathon -- not only do you have to run, but you have to come in first," or "Life is a game and you have to know how to play it," and more, "Life is a stage, and you have to act your part 'til the curtain falls." We embrace these metaphors because, as facile as they may be, in essence, they represent our reality. They reflect our 21st century mores, culture and life-style.
If we believe that life is a deck of cards, then it follows that we are just pawns in a world that lacks rhyme or reason, for the hand we are dealt is mere chance and beyond our control. Unable to shape our destiny, it is easy to become cynical, fatalistic, and bitter, especially if we are dissatisfied with our lot. We throw up our hands and conclude "It is what it is -- there's nothing we can do about it." So, we either succumb to hopelessness and despondency, or we go to the other extreme and "live it up" in an orgy of self-indulgence. Neither option is terribly attractive.
For those who believe that life is a marathon, the only thing that really counts is coming in first. They keep running -- they cannot stop, and if in the process they crush those who stand in their way or neglect those who need them most, so be it -- it's justified. After all, life is a marathon.
Some years ago, I read a brief news item in The New York Times about an Olympics for Special Children in Seattle, Washington. It was a small blurb, innocuously placed, and I would probably have missed it had my daughter not pointed it out to me. The story was about disabled children who competed in a race. When the whistle sounded, they started to run. Suddenly, one of the young boys fell, skinned his knee, and began to cry. When the others heard his cry, they stopped in their tracks, turned around, and went to his aid. One little girl, who had Down Syndrome, bent down, kissed his knee and said, "Here, this will make it feel better." The children helped the boy to his feet, linked hands, and ever so slowly, they all walked as one to the finish line.
Could it be that these children know something that those who are running have lost sight of? A world-renowned Torah sage would stand up for Down Syndrome children, for he believed that these souls are pure and holy and possess wisdom that our sophisticated world has yet to grasp.
One must wonder, who is disabled?
During my high school years, I read a short story that was so powerful that it has remained with me all this time. It was about a king who issued a proclamation calling for a national marathon. The winner would be awarded all the land that he covered, declared the king. There was great excitement in the kingdom. Among his subjects was a poor peasant, who saw this race as the opportunity of a lifetime -- his one chance to become rich. He practiced day and night -- he was determined to win. His wife called out to him. "Not now," he said, "wait until I win!" His sons and daughters tried to catch his attention, and to them too, he gave the same response. His friends and neighbors called for his help, but he was so focused on his running that he never even heard them. His ailing old father cried out in pain, but he never heard his plea.
"When the race is won and the land is mine," he told himself, "I will attend to everyone." He was determined to win and become rich -- and win he did! He was led to the king to collect his reward. His life dream would now be fulfilled. But no sooner did he arrive at the palace than he collapsed and died.
It's just a story, but it could be the story of any one of us. We run, we run, and never see those who are near and dear to us. We delude ourselves into believing that we are doing it all for their sake, but in the process, it is they who are sacrificed. Too late do we discover that although we may have won the race, we have lost our families, our friends, our very lives.
Then there are those who view life as a game, and to them, the end goal is fun. The main thing is to have a good time. They seek one form of entertainment after another -- entire industries have been created to indulge them in their quest. From movies to sports, to the latest in computer games, there are myriad distractions guaranteed to numb and anesthetize their hearts and minds. There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when people took walks to clear their heads, to contemplate and reflect upon their lives, but such introspective moments are relics of the past. Today, when people walk and jog, cell phones and i-Pods accompany them -- all filtering out reality. One cannot help but wonder what would happen if all theaters, movie houses, television stations, sports stadiums, computers and i-Pods were shut down for one day. How would these people fare? Would they fall apart? For those to whom life is a game, distractions become necessities -- tools through which they can escape the challenge of their reality.
Finally, for those to whom the metaphor that rings truest is "Life is just a stage," they will go through the motions, but it's all an act. They live their lives without ever discovering who they really are. From time to time, they may have moments of clarity, moments when they hear the still, small voice of their conscience prodding them, calling them -- but not knowing how to respond, they bury their angst with all sorts of diversions. They indulge in shopping sprees, an extravagance that was once limited to the rich, but which credit cards have now made accessible to almost everyone. The media and Madison Avenue all conspire to seduce people into believing that they need more, that if they have the "newest" and the "latest," they will find the happiness they crave -- so they discard the old and obsessively continue to shop.
But the high of acquisition quickly palls, and as much as they try, they cannot escape the purposelessness of their lives. Long ago, the Torah admonished us "Not by bread alone does man live, but by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d..." (Deuteronomy 8:3). Having no comprehension of that which emanates from G-d, they find solace in artificial stimuli, be it shopping, a pill, a drink or drugs. In the end, it doesn't matter with which metaphor we chose to identify -- they all short-change us and rob us of the essence of our lives.
So what is life?
From the Torah we learn that the definitive metaphor for life is a test. It is written that G-d tested the patriarch Abraham (Genesis 21:22), to which Abraham responded "Hineni, here I am," ready to do Your bidding, to fulfill the purpose for which You created me." On ten different occasions, Abraham was tested and he passed each time. G-d continues to test each and every one of us. These tests are custom-made, designed with our unique needs in mind, so that we might discover and fulfill the higher purpose for which He created us.
From the moment we are born, to the day that G-d calls us, we are tested. In essence, everything is a test, and once we absorb this, it will become easier to bear the many challenges and trials of life. These tests come in many shapes and forms -- the way we relate to G-d, to our parents, our teachers, our peers, our neighbors, our co-workers, our colleagues, even to a clerk in a store, the waiter in a restaurant, or a fellow driver on the road, are all tests. These tests reflect the genuineness of our commitment, the depth of our faith and the measure of our character, and at the end of the day, we are marked "pass" or "fail."
In the "University on High," even little things -- things that we would normally consider innocuous and insignificant -- count, and therefore, are tests. For example, we wake up in the morning and have a mental tug of war over whether we should get up and pray or be kind to ourselves and linger in bed just a little bit longer. After all, we reason, our little prayer won't make a difference; it won't really matter to G-d whether we pray or not. In any event, G-d would certainly want us to take care of ourselves and protect our health. We need our sleep. But how much sleep do we really need? Six hours? Eight hours? How much?
The Yetzer Hara -- the evil inclination, that little voice inside us that seeks to entice and divert us from passing our test and fulfilling our higher purpose -- will cunningly persuade us that we need "just a few minutes -- never a few hours, more." "A few more hours" we would reject out of hand, but a few minutes more seems reasonable enough, so we succumb. We allow ourselves to be seduced and shut our eyes for those few minutes more, but those few minutes turn into many minutes and sometimes even a lifetime. We failed that little test, and now we find ourselves in a downward spiral, for one little failure will lead to another and we never realize that we are being tested and are failing. To be sure, every once in a while, we sense a void in our lives -- something is missing, but we don't quite know what. We feel restless, lonely, and depressed. With renewed zeal, we immerse ourselves in our chosen metaphors, hoping that they will provide us with the relief we so desperately seek, as life passes us by.
But, you may argue, if there is such a force as the Yetzer Hara that exists for the sole purpose of misleading and diverting us, how can we possibly hope to pass the test? Aren't the cards stacked against us? "I have created the Yetzer Hara," G-d proclaimed, "but fear not, I created the Torah as an antidote to it" (Talmud). You need only anchor yourself to Torah and you will not only pass every test, but you will grow and thrive.
But more significantly, why does G-d have to test us? A physician has to test his patients to determine the nature of their illness, a teacher has to test his students to evaluate their progress, but why does an all-knowing G-d Who sees everything, Who is familiar with even the most secret machinations of our hearts -- why does He have to test us?
Undoubtedly, our Creator knows us. He knows every fiber of our being. He knows our strengths as well as our weaknesses, but the problem is that we do not know our own selves, our own potential. We have no understanding of the energy that G-d planted within our souls -- therefore, G-d has to test us to bring forth those treasures that are buried deep within ourselves and make us unique.