Rabbi Yisrael Reisman describes on a tape entitled “Great Expectations” his recollections of an incident that occurred when he was yet a young Yeshiva student. He had positioned himself in his dorm room so his bed would be adjacent to the sink for some strategic purpose. The sink, he soon discovered, had a constant drip which he promptly reported to the powers that be. Understanding that it was just a matter of a washer or some such nickel or dime item he assumed it would be taken care of pronto. The next few nights he lay awake tossing and turning to the dripping faucet becoming more upset, frustrated and resentful.
Finally after a couple of days, the janitor arrived. It was a loose washer. The whole thing took a few moments and cost next to nothing. The dripping was finally was over. That very evening there was huge rain storm and as he lay there in bed ready for a good night’s sleep he became aware of the dripping from the roof to the window sill below- the same constant drip- drip and it didn’t bother him a bit.
He wondered why one drip sound stirred him so and the other had zero effect. He concluded that the dripping sound was not what was actually annoying him. The proof is that the water from the rain didn’t wrinkle his psyche at all. What bothered him about the sink? The answer is that he assumed somebody would do something about it, it would be done right away, that his request would be fulfilled and honored swiftly etc. And it wasn’t…it wasn’t true!
I once heard from Rabbi Yitzchok Kirzner ztl two words that he called “the secret to happiness”. Admittedly, at the time I felt it sounded rather negative. Over many years, though, I have grown in appreciation for the wisdom of his insight. I share it often with my children and myself too. It’s a hard pill, “Expect Nothing!”
It is true that expectations can lead to unhappiness, especially if those expectations are unrealistic or simply mistaken. A few days ago, I commented on my own expectations in a blog post called Nothing’s Perfect. Over the past year or two, I set a series of actions into motion based, in part, on what I felt was the right thing to do and what I expected should happen as a result of those actions. What I did was rather dramatic in the sense that, after many years at one congregation, serving on the board of elders and doing some writing and teaching, I gave my resignation, not only from my formal leadership position, but from membership within the congregation.
This horrified just about everyone, including my wife (her response kind of surprised me), since I was generally well-regarded in the congregation and many in the community of faith felt that difficult things would happen to me if I had no fellowship among the body of believers.
Needless to say, I felt I had compelling reasons to make such a decision and still believe my reasoning was sound. I also had expectations about what was to happen next, maybe not in the immediate sense, but over a period of weeks and months.
My expectations did not pan out. Like young Yisrael Reisman enduring the dripping faucet, I had an expectation about what was supposed to happen after a while. He expected someone to come fairly quickly and to fix the leak. I expected a certain response from my spouse and from God. Both of us didn’t get what we wanted in the way or the time frame that we expected.
But Rabbi Lam’s story (actually, Rabbi Reisman’s) story missed something. Here’s a clue.
Understanding that it was just a matter of a washer or some such nickel or dime item he assumed it would be taken care of pronto.
Rabbi Reisman, as a young Yeshiva student, knew the problem with the faucet could probably be fixed by replacing a cheap washer. All he needed to do, if he was tired of waiting, was to purchase this inexpensive item and repair the faucet himself. Maybe he was concerned that he shouldn’t perform this task it was supposed to be done by the janitor, but it was within his abilities (apparently) to fix the drip if he really wanted to do so.
What about me?
Fulfilling my expectation isn’t that simple, but it isn’t that difficult either, at least in principle. It depends on how I choose to look at my situation. If I feel that I have the ability to fix my own “dripping faucet,” I can choose to seek fellowship within a community of faith. It would be a matter of generating the effort to seek one out (which might involve visiting a fair number of Christian communities) and begin attending. This isn’t without its problems, as I’ve already stated in another of my “meditations,” Why I Don’t Go to Church. Nevertheless, it’s not like I am without options.
On the other hand, I could choose to look at my situation as Rabbi Reisman did when the rain started falling and dripping noises came from the window sill of his room. I can decide that there is nothing to be done. The rain is the rain and it makes all sorts of sounds, some of which are quite soothing. I could simply follow Rabbi Reisman’s example, allow the situation to be what it is, and do nothing. Here though, Rabbi Reisman did not explain the whole story. It won’t rain forever. True, we never really know how long a rain storm will last, (barring a report from the weatherman) but we know it will end at some point. We also know that God knows when the rain will end.
When Rabbi Kirzner advises “expect nothing,” it is true that if you expect nothing, you will be disappointed by nothing that happens or doesn’t happen. On the other hand, it’s difficult for most people to plan out even a trip to the grocery store without some small set of expectations. If such is true for a small task like shopping, how much more so should we have expectations when we plan out our walk on a lifelong path of faith?
It is unreasonable expectations and inflexible expectations that often get us in trouble one way or another. We expect a raise so we can afford to go on vacation, and we don’t get it. We expect our spouse to cook dinner one night and she decides to go out to see a friend instead. The result of these inflexible expectations is usually feeling resentment toward the person who disappointed us. Rabbi Reisman felt resentful toward the janitor for taking so long to fix his faucet. There are people who are very resentful of God for also not meeting expectations.
But it’s not like we can’t expect to depend on God. If we could not rely on God for our daily food, our shelter, our livelihood, and our comfort in distress, we would truly feel lost in a chaotic and random world. Fortunately, such is not the case.
He is my God, my living Redeemer,
Rock of my pain in time of distress.
He is my banner, a refuge for me,
the portion in my cup on the day I call.
Into His hand I shall entrust my spirit
when I go to sleep — and I shall awaken!
With my spirit shall my body remain.
HASHEM is with me, I shall not fear.
-from Adon Olam
Adon Olam or “Master of the Universe” is a blessing sung in synagogues all over the world on every Shabbat. It is also the last blessing recited during the bedtime Shema by a Jew right before he retires. It is an expectation that when he goes to sleep and in some small sense, enters the realm of “death,” that he will awaken the next morning, with his spirit returned to him by God. It is true that some people go to sleep and do not awaken and ultimately, as mortal beings, that awaits us all. However, we rely on God and depend on Him to preserve us and to protect us. This is why, upon awakening, a Jew recites Modeh Ani.
I gratefully thank You,
living and existing King,
for returning my soul to me with compassion;
abundant is Your faithfulness.
While I have no idea what will actually happen after I go to sleep or what each day will bring when I first wake up, I expect that God will be there during my sleeping and waking. Near the end of his life, David composed a final Psalm in which he expects that the work he has left unfinished as King will be continued by his son Solomon. It could also be read as a prophesy of the Messiah’s coming and how he will finish the work of tikkun olam; repairing our broken world.
My his name endure forever, may his name connote mastery as long as the sun endures; and all the nations will bless themselves by him; they will praise him. Blessed is Hashem, God, the God of Israel, Who alone does wondrous things. Blessed is His glorious Name forever; and may all the earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.
–Psalm 72:17-19 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
I don’t know what is going to happen, today, tomorrow, or next week, but I do know that whatever happens, God will be present in my life. If I were to expect nothing, I would have no reason to be disappointed, but I would also have nothing to hope for, and without hope, what is life? The future is a great mystery to human beings but it is not an entirely dark unknown. I know that God is there, my rock and my redeemer and regardless of the direction my path of faith takes, around each bend, at the bottom of each ravine, and at the top of each height, I expect God.