by Braha Bender
The general rule is that when you’re real with G-d, He is real with you. Does that mean life is never difficult? Of course not. Tough times are our opportunities to grow.
But sometimes you get a glimpse of just how much He wants you to succeed. An old Jewish fable about a shipwreck tells the tale. Is it a true story? We don’t know. What we do know is that it is a story that tells the truth.
Once Upon a Time…
David and Avraham were two European Jews traveling towards far-off business destinations. They did not expect the storm to rise when it did; nobody foresaw the sinking ship, the cries of passengers flung into the wild waves, or the deaths of so many.
Yet David and Avraham survived. Clinging with the last of their strength to a large shaft of wood from the broken ship, the two friends gasped for breath, spit salt, and prayed for mercy. Battered by the slowly calming tides, the hunk of wood drifted towards unknown shores. Hours later, the two friends found themselves climbing out of the cold water and collapsing unto the sand of a beach. Soon they were both fast asleep.
David heard the talking first. A group of fishermen had found them. From the language spoken by the fishermen, the two friends realized that the shores they had drifted unto were in Spain. As if the terror of shipwreck had not been enough, the situation now was just as frightening. Spain, land of inquisitions and expulsions, was no friend to the Jews. Spanish law of that time ruled that not a single Jewish footfall would be permitted on pain of death.
But right now the two friends had no choice. After sharing water from their canteens, the kind fishermen invited David and Avraham to their homes to recover. Knowing that they must conceal their religion, David and Avraham parted with knowing glances, hoping that this would not be their last goodbye.
David found himself in a warm, friendly home not far from the beach. Cozy room and board were quickly prepared for him. The fisherman’s family immediately offered David a steaming bowl of soup and a jug of good wine, but David excused himself as too exhausted to eat.
“This food is not kosher,” thought the righteous man to himself as he took to his quarters. Although hungry after his harrowing journey, David was determined not to ingest food against the guidelines of his beloved Torah.
“Are You Jewish?”
Yet morning came too quickly and with it a ravenous hunger. Struggling fiercely to make the right decision, David clung to his commitment to keep kosher as desperately as he had clung to the wood that buoyed him to safety. Soon another warm meal was placed before the hungry traveler. David excused himself with as much grace as he could, thinking, “I have never eaten non-kosher food and I will not start now!”
“Are you Jewish?”
The question came out of nowhere. As David looked up into the inquiring eyes of the fisherman who had taken him in, he did not see malevolence. Yet in Spain who could tell?
The beat between David’s shock, fear, and decision about how to respond was filled in quickly. To David’s great surprise, the fisherman rushed in with a secret of his own. “Do not be afraid. I see the answer in your eyes. We are Marranos, hidden Jews. You may eat in our home. We will not serve you food that is not kosher.”
Sensing David’s hesitance – was this a test? – the fisherman reached down to pull away a floorboard, removing a hidden pair of tefillin. Eyes widening, David rose to put on the proffered tefillin and fervently whisper his morning prayers before a very welcome meal. The Marrano family, overjoyed to be hosting a knowledgeable fellow Jew, spent the remainder of the day in eager discussion about the many Jewish laws and practices that they had never had another soul to ask about before.
As David prepared to take his leave several days later, a sigh of gratitude escaped his lips. “Imagine if I had broken my resolve and eaten the food you offered me when I thought it was not kosher,” he commented to the fisherman. “Neither of us would have benefitted as we did.”
Why Not Me?
Reuniting with Avraham on a departing vessel soon after, David told his friend about his experiences in the home of the Marrano fisherman. “What a miracle it was!,” exclaimed David. “On the shores of the very country where the inquisition took place, I was blessed to eat kosher food, lay tefillin, and learn Torah with a family who practices the Torah in secret!”
Standing on the bow of the departing ship, Avraham carefully concealed his consternation at the extraordinary circumstances his friend had encountered. His own experiences had been quite different. Avraham’s resolve to eat only kosher food had quickly broken. The many days he had spent eating non-kosher food and without laying tefillin weighed heavily upon him. Why hadn’t he been blessed with similar circumstances to his friend David? The question continued to disturb Avraham throughout the journey home.
Soon upon their arrival, Avraham’s question led him to the door of his rabbi. “Come in, Avraham. I heard the story of your terrible journey. Welcome home!”
“Thank you, rabbi,” replied Avraham. “I have come to you with a question. I am so grateful to have survived, but my days in Spain were spent in violation of many of the laws of our precious Torah. My friend David did not have to go through this. Miracles from heaven allowed him to recover from the shipwreck without breaking a single commandment. My question is, why did heaven force me to violate the Torah the way I did?”
The rabbi looked at his student gently. They had known each other for a very long time. The rabbi could see that Avraham did not just want to be comforted. He wanted a truthful answer.
“Let me ask you a question,” said the rabbi. “Was this the first time in your life that you ate forbidden foods? Was it the first time that you failed to lay tefillin?”
Avraham grimaced and admitted, “Well, a few years ago I was travelling during the summertime and it was very hot. I began to feel dizzy but had no water. When I came upon a non-Jewish inn, I decided to go in and ask for something to drink. They set a glass down in front of me and poured in the most cold, beautiful, golden wine I had ever seen. I’ll tell you the truth, I kind of let myself forget that the wine was not kosher. I was so thirsty. I drank it.”
Avraham glanced up at the rabbi’s kind eyes and plunged ahead. “Well, it was on an empty stomach and the wine did what wine does. I ended up ordering an entire meal, none of it kosher, and sleeping the whole thing off in one of the inn’s quarters. I missed the afternoon prayers that day. Missed the morning prayers as well…”
The rabbi gazed into Avraham’s eyes levelly. “You know Tehillim (Psalms) well, Avraham. In chapter 19, verse 10, it says, ‘The judgments of G-d are true, they are altogether righteous.’ Since you transgressed these laws willingly, it seems that heaven did not find it necessary to make miracles to save you from transgressing them accidentally.”
Continued the rabbi, “From what you tell me, it seems that your friend had invested great effort to keep these mitzvos (commandments) all of his life. Otherwise, when the greatest test of all arrived, how could he have passed? Even after a shipwreck, David stayed true to his commitment. Most people can’t build up that kind of self-discipline without practice. Since David was willing to move heaven and earth to keep kosher under all circumstances, so heaven and earth moved to help him keep kosher when doing so would otherwise be impossible. As it says in Sefer Shmuel (Samuel 1 2:9), ‘He guards the steps of His devout ones...’”
Avraham left his rabbi’s home that day determined to become the kind of person who would deserve that kind of relationship with G-d.
And how does the story end? Did Avraham ever merit to see miracles like David did? We don’t know that part of the story. Sometimes we need difficulties to grow. Sometimes we need miracles. Avraham got exactly what he needed in order to become the best and most fulfilled person he could become. We all do.
But no matter what happened to him from on high, one thing is certain. Avraham made a decision that day. And becoming a person with that kind of integrity is the happiest ending of all.