Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s been going through a very rough patch (aren’t we all these days…)
This friend has been doing everything right: they’ve been upping the ante with their level of mitzvah observance, they’ve been attending more Torah classes, they’ve been praying more – and their life appears to be inexorably sliding towards doom and disaster.
At least, that’s how it looks to them. It looks to them like God isn’t giving them anything they’re asking for, and that all their prayers are being ignored. My friend wanted to know: ‘What’s the point of continuing to pray, if God’s just ignoring me, and not giving me what I’m asking for?’
Ahhhh. That’s the whole crux of the matter, isn’t it? Because it brings into sharp focus the whole question of whether I’m doing whatever I’m doing for me, or whether I’m doing whatever I’m doing for God.
Ask most religiously observant people why they’re doing things, and most of them will tell you it’s for God – and on one level, they firmly believe it. In the meantime, God gives them spouses, health, children, food and a home, all as free gifts, but this Divine generosity can feel somehow deserved, when you’re keeping Shabbat or paying your 10% charity.
Which is why the real test is when God takes it away.
Maybe, your kid goes off the derech; or your marriage starts going down the tubes; or your finances get so tight, you have to start scaling down, and scaling back, and changing your lifestyle drastically.
At that point, it’s human nature to ask: ‘What’s going on here? Why is God punishing me? What have I done wrong?’
That last comment is the clue to the underlying mindset, which goes something like this:
“For as long as I do what God wants, and keep His Torah, God will give me stuff. If God is not giving me stuff, or has stopped giving me stuff, I must have done something wrong.”
Sometimes, that’s true. If a person doesn’t regularly give 10% to charity, for example, they may well get hit with big financial problems; if a woman isn’t going to the mikva every month, her family may well get hit with all sort of massive interpersonal relationship issues. Cause and effect is definitely permanently at play, and it’s often very clear and obvious.
But not always.
Sometimes, a person can be giving 10% to charity, and even 20% to charity, and still slide into poverty. Sometimes, a person can get super-duper tznius and still experience huge issues with their spouse. Sometimes, you can pray your socks off asking for something that you’re pretty sure God would want you to have, like kids, or health, or a home of your own, and still not get them.
That’s when you really get to see if you’re truly doing mitzvahs for yourself, or for God. At that point where all your spiritual effort comes back with an apparent ‘rejected’ stamp on it, that’s where you’re really given the choice to serve God lishma, for it’s own sake.
Sometimes, often, it’s a test you can’t stand up in, at least initially.
At least initially, you’ll have a huge wobble and start questioning your belief, and your faith, and your sanity. Wouldn’t things be easier, if you’d gone a different route? Wouldn’t it be better, if you hadn’t got so ‘frum’? Isn’t everyone else having a much easier time of it, without bothering to pray, or to change, or to grow?
I think every sincere soul-seeker goes through this process, at least once, on their journey towards God.
The answer is of course ‘no’. Whatever difficulty you have as a religious person trying to get closer to God, you’d have it as a secular person trying to please yourself – and without the comfort of believing that it was somehow all for the best.
Like I told my friend, all of us today are being sent big tests, to clean the slate from all the stuff we left over from our last few hundred reincarnations – that’s the ’cause’, although we usually have no way of knowing what we actually did back then to deserve all the stuff we’re getting lobbed at us in 2015.
The test is to be poor, or sick, or unhappily married, or with tearaway kids, and to know that it’s not a rejection, it’s not a punishment, it’s just a soul correction that has to be got through.
That’s why Rav Arush tells us to pray to be happy with our suffering, for as long as we have to endure it (see the quote below, from the Garden of Healing’; that’s why Rav Ofer Erez teaches that some of the things we go through were ordained from the six days of creation, and there’s nothing we can to do avoid them; that’s why Rebbe Nachman teaches that there is no despair in the world.
Because it’s not a punishment or Divine rejection. It’s an invitation to judge God favorably, and to fulfil the precept of being someone who serves Him for no (obvious) reward.
May God help us all to pass our tests with our faith intact.
“Often in life we have to go through something. That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re being punished, or we’ve sinned, or done anything wrong. There are so many different factors entering into one’s Heavenly reckoning that we know nothing about, for we’re just not always able to understand God’s ways.” – Rav Shalom Arush, pg 130, ‘The Garden of Healing’