Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

Corpses Don’t Develop Scars


A few days ago, I received the following text:

Dear Rabbi: 

I was fired yesterday along with some coworkers as a result of the coronavirus.

Today my girlfriend has told me that she prefers for us to go our separate ways.

One is supposed to keep trusting that everything is for the best and feel fortunate.

But is it possible to feel this sincerely?

Today we will explore how to deal with the apparent failures that life brings us. I say that these failures are apparent because it is only possible to judge successes and failures once we get to see the “end of the movie”. Thus, what appears to be a failure may, over time, prove to be a necessary and beneficial step in achieving what would not have been possible without said “failure”.

In this week’s reading, Tetzaveh [1], G-d commands Moshe to ask the Jewish people to bring him olive oil to be used in lighting the Menorah, the Candelabrum of the Tabernacle. This oil was to be made with special care. It had to be katit lamaor, that is, from olives “crushed for lighting”.

In addition to the technical details delineated in the Halachah, the Hasidic teachings find implicit in this expression a valuable lesson for life: being crushed by the circumstances of life has as its objective to enable us to illuminate. In its natural and comfortable state, the olive can illuminate nothing. It is only through the process of crushing that its potential to enlighten is freed up. In fact, we see that it was during the most difficult moments in our history, those of greatest oppression, that the greatest spiritual luminaries were produced, whose lights shine to this day. Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Akiva, Rashi and Maimonides are just some of the best known examples. The stories of Chanukah and Purim are also outstanding examples.

Truths transcend all kinds of borders. Mrs. Julia Pou de Lacalle, mother of the newly installed President of Uruguay, Dr. Luis Lacalle Pou, commented recently regarding her son’s win after having lost the previous presidential elections: “Do you know why Luis matured? Because he lost. When you lose, you look in the mirror. I think it was providential.”  [2]

What wise words and what a great lesson! Thank you!

Nobody likes to fail. But failure can be seen as a great opportunity for learning and growth. A scar implies that what happened to you did not kill you; corpses do not produce scars… Failure allows you to recognize, access and activate opportunities and abilities that would otherwise go unnoticed and untapped. 

This reminds me of the story of the Polish immigrant who arrives in New York and starts looking for work. The only work experience he had was his job as a Shamash at the synagogue. As Shamash he would give people the necessary books during prayers, help them find the right page, etc. He went from synagogue to synagogue to see if they needed someone with his experience, but without success. They all had members who were experienced synagogue habitués, so they did not need his services. Finally he tried his luck with a synagogue known as a bit more modern, whose members could surely use his services. Indeed, they did. The president of the synagogue was very satisfied with his experience and personality, so he decided to hire him. When signing the contract, our experienced Shamash draws an X in place of his signature. 

“And, what, may I ask, is that?” asked the President. 

“I just came from the shtetl, and I can’t read nor write English,” replied Duvid Katz, sheepishly. 

“Ah, in that case,” replied the President, “unfortunately there is no deal. We cannot hire as Shamash someone who does not have even the slightest level of American culture.” 

With no other synagogue in sight to ply his trade, our friend resigned himself to trying his hand at commerce. A friend entrusted him with some merchandise, and so he went out to try his luck, going door to door in the neighborhood. He did well, and little by little he was able to build himself up and become financially secure. 

Over the years the man became very successful and respected in the business world. 

One day, he had to negotiate a loan at the bank. When the negotiations were over, and everyone was ready to sign the document, he put, as was his custom, an “X” as his signature. 

“And, what, may I ask, is that?” asked the manager. 

“I am an immigrant and I can’t write English,” answered Duvid. 

“Are you serious, Mr. Katz?! I can’t believe it! If you were so successful without knowing how to read and write English, can you imagine where you’d be today if you had learned those basic skills?” insisted the manager.

“Of course I can! I’d still be working as an employee at the synagogue on Canal Street…”

This week’s tool, then, is: 

When you fail despite all your best efforts, don’t fret. It’s G-d’s way of saying: “Not yet, son; I have something bigger in mind for you. Don’t give up…”

  1. Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
  2. Published in the Uruguayan daily, El País, March 3, 2020, page 18.
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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