In the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, there was an elderly native of the city who prayed with the Yeshiva each morning. On the morning following the presidential election in the United States, before prayers began, he went to one of the American boys and asked him who had won.
I don’t know if the young student knew the answer, but he was struck by the question. Why would an old man from Jerusalem care about the elections, so much so that he would go out of his way to ask about the results before prayers? Doesn’t G-d come first?
Asked for an explanation, the man replied that he was about to say a blessing thanking G-d for giving him the opportunity to be part of the Jewish People. Although everyone is created in the image of G-d and every righteous person has a share in the World to Come, to be called to serve G-d through all His Commandments is unique privilege. And when making that blessing, he wanted to think about the greatest and most powerful non-Jew in the world!
To give the story a bit of deeper insight, consider that this elderly gentleman lived in poverty in a small Jerusalem apartment. If I’m not mistaken, the protagonist used to sit in the back of the Bais Medrash (study hall), tying Tzitzis (fringes on the corners of garments) for a living while he reviewed the Babylonian Talmud by heart. He was quite poor, yet considered himself blessed beyond the most powerful man in the world.
Every one of us has our own individual set of challenges and opportunities placed before us. Our Sages tell us that we must say, “the entire world was created for me.” Whatever our situation, we have incredible blessings which we often take for granted. Most of us have legs to walk on, are able to breathe the air around us, and are able to marvel at a sunset. But even those who are not able to do all those things have many others for which to be thankful.
-Rabbi Yaakov Menken
“A Moment of Thanks”
I didn’t really intend to write additional blog posts that related to my The Equality Puzzle series, but as with so many of my other “meditations,” this one just sort of “happened.”
We see here a perfect example of how all people are considered equal in that we are all created in the image of God, and yet we also find that an elderly and impoverished Jewish man in Jerusalem, someone who barely manages to make a living, sees himself as more privileged than the (non-Jewish) President of the United States who is arguably, the most powerful single person in the world. The old man lives without many things, but he is honored “to be called to serve G-d through all His Commandments.”
This says several things. First, in the sense of being able to “serve G-d through all His Commandments,” we are not all the same. A poor old Jewish man may have this unique privilege, but even the President of the United States, if he or she is not Jewish, does not share this special honor from God. However, though this may represent a gross inequality to some, it also illustrates that we all have something to be thankful for and a wonderful role to play out in God’s Kingdom that was crafted just for us.
You could be an old Jewish man in Jerusalem who earns a meager living by tying tzitzit, the President of the United States, or anyone else, but no matter who you are, you are special, and you are unique, and there is something in your life that God gave you that you can be thankful for.
But if all that is true, then why is it so common for each of us to “look over the fence,” so to speak, and to long for the “greener grass” in someone else’s field?
A young man asked a sage how to go about finding riches.
“Would you give a leg,” asked the sage, “for a bagful of diamonds?”
“Yes, I would,” said the young man. “The pleasures riches bring would easily compensate for my loss of a leg.”
“Come with me,” said the sage, and he led him into the marketplace where a one-legged man sat leaning against a wall.
“My good fellow,” said the sage, “would you give me a bagful of diamonds if I could restore your leg?”
“I would give two bagfuls,” he replied, “even if I had to spend years stealing them. I would do anything to be relieved of my legless misery.”
The sage turned to the young man. “Would you still make that deal?”
The young man shivered and shook his head.
“Go home,” said the sage. “You don’t have to seek riches. You have it already.”
A young man in good health would give one of his legs in exchange for a bag of diamonds so he can be wealthy. A man with a missing leg would beg, borrow, or steal two bags full of diamonds and dedicate years of his life to the task if he could get his leg back. We want what we weren’t given by God for our lives but if we somehow acquire it, we find that we’d surrender our treasure in order to restore what we were naturally given by God.
Go figure. People are really peculiar. We will even squander what God gives us for our own benefit and to improve the quality of our lives.
There is a Midrash (a commentary on the Five Books of Moses in the form of a parable) about a successful businessman who meets a former colleague down on his luck. The colleague begs the successful business man for a substantial loan to turn around his circumstances. Eventually, the businessman agrees to a 6 month loan and gives his former colleague the money. At the end of the 6 months, the businessman goes to collect his loan. The former colleague gives him every last penny. However, the businessman notices that the money is the exact same coins he loaned the man. He was furious! “How dare you borrow such a huge amount and not even use it? I gave this to you to better your life!” The man was speechless.
How like the Parable of the Talents in which Jesus tells us something very much the same:
But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ –Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)
God has given each of us so very much, and yet most of us are never satisfied with His providence. We always want more. We always want what God never intended to give us. Jews and Christians each possess many important and precious gifts from the Lover of our souls. Don’t be so quick to throw your’s away just because someone else’s looks more attractive. The consequences, as we have seen in abundance, can be disastrous.
Rosh Hashanah begins in less than a week. If you are a Christian whose heart is turned toward the Jewish traditions and the God of Israel, now more than ever, this is the time to appreciate who you are and what God has given you as a Christian. You are blessed. Give thanks.