The Jewish Secret
Translated and Adapted by Braha Bender
Torah tells us that “everything is in the hands of Heaven except for recognition of Heaven”. Torah also tells us that “a man is led in the way he wants to go” (BaMidbar Rabbah 20:12). Put these two verses together and you come up with a recipe for controlling your destiny: the moral choices you make trigger the circumstances G-d presents you with. How far does this principle take us?
Take, for example, Rabbi Moshe Aaron Stern, one of this century’s Jerusalem Torah greats. When the little boy was only eight, he contracted a potentially fatal illness. The young Moshe Aharon’s father turned to the top doctors, rabbis, and beseeched the Heavens for his son’s recovery, but he also turned to the boy himself. “Everyone is working towards your recovery,” he told him. “You have to try your best as well.”
“What am I supposed to do?” asked the little boy.
“Choose a mitzvah (Torah commandment),” said his father, “And make a resolution to stick to it when you get well.”
The child thought for a moment. “Okay, like what?”
His father suggested that he commit to always pray in a minyan (a quorum of ten men praying together), the boy agreed, and recovered shortly thereafter. The many years of his life saw Rabbi Stern always making sure to maintain his commitment.
It wasn’t always easy. As the spiritual director of the Kaminetz Yeshivah in Jerusalem, Rabbi Stern’s position required him to travel to the States to collect funds for a new yeshivah building one year. On the phone with the travel agent, Rabbi Stern was most concerned with whether or not there would be a minyan on the plane.
The agent protested, “Rabbi, this is a travel agency; we do not organize prayer schedules. I cannot promise that there will be a minyan.” But when Rabbi Stern explained that this might preclude his purchase of plane tickets, the travel agent suggested that a stopover in Amsterdam could afford him time to take care of his religious obligations. Looking into it, the Rabbi Stern saw he would be able to leave the airport, pray, and return for his flight. With that, the tickets were booked.
Landing in Amsterdam, Rabbi Stern found himself with two hours to find a minyan and get back to his plane. Grabbing his tallis and tefillin, the rabbi made his way to the highway. Car after car rushed past him.
Suddenly a car pulled over and the driver stuck his head out.
“Where does the rabbi need to go?”
“I’m looking for a minyan for Shacharis (morning prayers),” replied Rabbi Stern.
With a grin, the Jew invited him in and off they sped. The Jew, who lived in the suburbs of the city, was heading in to Amsterdam on his way to work.
Turning onto a side street a few minutes later, the two men got out of the car to face the unassuming door of a ground-floor apartment. Inside the building, Rabbi Stern found himself in a mini shul. Eight men stood waiting for them to complete the quorum of ten so that they all could begin their prayers.
The driver insisted on driving Rabbi Stern back to the airport after shacharis. Thanking him profusely, Rabbi Moshe Aaron Stern continued on to the USA.
But when Rabbi Stern would retell this encounter, his eyes would shine. “Just think!” the rabbi would marvel. “Eight men woke up early to go to shul. The ninth man was supposed to come in from the suburbs, as he did every day. And where would the tenth man come from? They imported a Jew all the way from Israel on his way to America!”
Because, Torah explains, when it comes to moral decisions, “a man is led in the way he wants to go”.
This idea is originally conveyed in Parashas Balak. The parasha depicts Balaam, an evil prophet-for-hire, as he collaborates with the evil King Balak to attempt to spiritually blight the Jewish People.
Balaam’s journey to Moab to curse the Jews is first discouraged by the Almighty in no uncertain terms: “You shall not go with [King Balak’s messengers]” (Numbers 22:12). But Balaam’s insistence to follow them leads the Almighty to concede, “Arise and go with them… But only the things that I shall speak to you – that shall you do” (Numbers 22:20). In other words, “If you still insist on going ahead with this, Balaam, even with the knowledge that I am opposed to it, then go – and good riddance. Just remember that you will not be able to harm them if it is not part of My plan.”
Since nothing but Balaam’s downfall could have come from this trip, the Almighty tried to prevent him from going. The Almighty doesn’t want to have to serve people with the consequences of their own destructive behavior, so He does everything in His power – short of revoking our free will – to try to guide us to our benefit. He gave us the Torah, the rabbis, and our own intelligence to try to wake us up. He even tried to convince Balaam to change his mind.
However, we learn from this episode that when a person is dead set on his own downfall, the Almighty “steps aside” to let him learn the hard way. The same is true to an even greater degree of a person who has his heart set on goodness and greatness. The Almighty steps aside, rolls out the red carpet, and does everything in His power – again, short of revoking free will – to support him in his wonderful decisions. (Rambam, Laws of Repentance, 5, 1)
Against all odds, Rabbi Stern was directed to a little makeshift shul in an apartment building in Amsterdam to keep the moral commitment he had made in childhood; Balaam was led to his demise. Each of them made a choice; “circumstance” conceded.
We often see things upside down, as though our lives are being steered by outside forces: “I didn’t mean for it to work out this way – I wasn’t trying to make this happen – I didn’t start it – I just happened to be here – It’s not my fault.”
We come up with justifications and place the blame elsewhere, but by shirking the blame we deny our power, as though we are just the chess pieces and not the player. Metaphysically, that just isn’t how things happen.
Our moral choices invite our circumstances, for good or for better. Although unbeknownst to many, the truth remains that the deepest, inner wishes of our hearts influence the landscape of life that the Almighty paints before us.