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Choose life. Because the alternative is death.
Why would a good, omniscient and omnipotent God bring adversity and challenge in my life? We’ve explored two Jewish approaches to this difficult question in previous articles. (You can read them here and here.) This article discusses a third (and final) approach to consider.
I heard the following example from Elana Rosenblatt, the wife of my friend Rabbi Shaul Rosenblatt. She succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 29, leaving behind four children. The strength, grace and spiritual clarity she embodied during her final years brought enormous, unforgettable light to the world. (Shaul has written an excellent book on this subject.)
Three athletes are training for the Olympics. At the end of a grueling day, their coach tells two of the athletes that they’re free to go, but the third needs to stay for an additional hour of working out and practice.
Why is the coach singling him out?
Sometimes we need the extra squeeze to access our inner greatness.
Because he’s got the greatest shot at winning the gold. The coach is investing more time and energy in him to bring out his formidable potential. The third athlete needs that extra squeeze to access his inner greatness.
We may doubt ourselves and not believe that we are capable of attaining personal greatness, but God has fashioned our soul and He knows what we are made of. He is intimately aware of our inner potential and isn’t prepared to throw in the towel and give up on us, even if that’s what we feel like doing. God is investing in each and every one of us. If we’re not firing on all cylinders, He may turn up the heat and give us the circumstances and challenges we need to rise to the occasion and push ourselves further, sometimes beyond what we could ever imagine.
I’ve experienced this in my life. Initially overwhelmed with the challenge of raising a special needs’ child, looking back I can see how the incomparable blessing of our son has changed me and my entire family. Yehuda forces me to work on being more patient, a trait I know I am sorely lacking in. He has taught our family the language of hugs and has made his siblings more sensitive, empathetic and respectful of people who are different than them.
We can respond to adversity by accepting it and using it to motivate ourselves to work harder in accomplishing our life’s purpose.
That’s what the Berman family did when their young son Brian was diagnosed with Type 1 Gaucher, a rare genetic disorder that results in missing an enzyme that breaks down fatty substances called lipid. At the time there was no treatment available. At first the parents asked “Why me, why us?” and then they sprang into action. They searched high and low and found a doctor who was making potential breakthroughs in treatment.
Their son Brian was the first person to receive successful treatment. Today there is treatment for Gaucher disease, thanks to the efforts spearheaded by the Berman family. Brian is a healthy, active husband and father of five children, and the president of The Gaucher Foundation, the very foundation that his parents created decades ago.
But why does God make it so hard to reach our potential? Why do we need to push ourselves? What if I’m happy binge-watching Netflix all day? God, just leave me and my munchies alone!
The explanation lies in understanding the nature of free will.
When framing the essence of free will, the Torah says, “See I have placed before you today the life and the good, and the death and the evil…. choose life so that you may live” (Deuteronomy, 30:15,19). Free will is not merely a choice between good evil; it’s a choice between life and death.
How so? Who chooses death?
We all do.
Rabbi Noah Weinberg, obm, demonstrated this point by asking students, “What’s the opposite of pain?” Most people reply, “Pleasure.”
The opposite of pain is not pleasure; it’s no pain – comfort. Don’t confuse comfort with pleasure.
Rabbi Weinberg would retort, “Incorrect. The opposite of pain is not pleasure; it’s no pain – comfort. Don’t confuse comfort with pleasure.”
Comfort is the absence of pain, lying on the beach without a care in the world, a shot of Novocain as you sit in the dentist’s chair, sleeping in… The ultimate experience of no pain is death itself. Suicide. The Talmud says that we all have a death wish, a part of us that wants to put us back in the ground and end it all. And one the yetzer hara, our lower selves that is more connected to the material world, can’t win that battle, he moves on to the next best thing, namely suicide in installments.
That enticement comes in all shapes and sizes – we all have our temptations and forms of escape – and it never let’s up.
On the other side of our free will battle is the option to choose life. Our soul yearns to soar, to grow, to accomplish. Real pleasure requires pain and effort, not running away from it. “No pain, no gain,” as the saying goes. The most meaningful moments we have come through the crucible of struggle.
God, Who is Infinite and complete, has put us in the world to attain ultimate meaning and fulfillment, which comes through exerting our free will muscles, overcoming the drive for comfort, and choosing genuine pleasure.
It couldn’t be any other way, because free will is what makes us like God, Who is free and independent. The desire to stay inert and throw away our potential because it’s easier and far more comfortable is choosing meaninglessness and escape, a form of death. It’s the very opposite of God, Who is eternal life.
Like a parent who cannot tolerate seeing his child throw away his life by sleeping in all day and playing computer games, God wants us to get off the couch, conquer our demons, and taste the deep-seated pleasure and meaning that is there for the taking, if we want it badly enough.
Choose life. Because the alternative is death.