Recently, I watched a movie on Netflix called Biutiful about a petty criminal in Barcelona, Spain who despite his undesirable vocation shows care and concern for the poor and oppressed from the sweatshops to the street corners that he regularly confronts.
It was a lesson that even when we are in trying life circumstances, we can still work to rise above it, maintain our integrity, demonstrate compassion, and do good in the world. Yet unfortunately in the movie despite the main characters attempts to help others, he himself gets personally beaten down again and again, with a mentally ill wife, getting arrested, young children growing up in poverty, and even a death sentence from cancer. He reminded me of Job in the Bible, who before he could get his arms around one catastrophe, the poor soul was already forced to confront the next.
The harsh realities of life can come seemingly out of nowhere. A senior colleague I know, who recently went on a luxurious family vacation, told me how great a time they were having and said after one particularly amazing day of activities, “It was the best day ever!” However, soon after coming back, he experienced a family tragedy and said, “It was an unbelievably horrible day!” We mutually commented that “it’s better to just live a simple life.” Who needs the magnificent soul-soaring highs of constant self-gratification, materialism, and greed only to be followed by the tormenting lows of always wanting “more” and better out of one’s lot in life? It reminded me of something really smart that my dear father used to say,
Better a little less, but you know what you have.
In a way, there is a lot of truth to this. Stability is worth a lot! And perhaps, while a huge appetite for risk can possibly yield to an outsized reward, it could also lead to one ending up in life’s trash heap of utter and abysmal failures. Similarly, when I studied for my MBA, the professors taught us that nine out of 10 business start-ups end up bankrupt within just five years! Therefore, instead of chasing high risk initiatives, my father taught us hard work (plain and simple) and the discipline to follow through on whatever we embarked on. I remember my amazing father, practicing what he preached and literally going to the factory even when he was sick and had a high fever, and I myself tried to follow in those big footsteps the best that I could with my own life pursuits.
In discussing these with my wife the other day, I reflected and said about challenging life events that we must confront :
G-d doesn’t ask us; He tells us.
Truly, in whatever situations we find ourselves in life, and the pain and suffering that we may have to endure, we really don’t have a choice of our circumstance, but only in how we choose to respond to it. In life, G-d puts us right where he wants us and in situations that are personalized and best for us, whether it feels that way at the moment or not. G-d tries us, and we have to respond with the “right” thoughts, words, and deeds—always remaining a mensch and choosing holiness and righteousness, no matter how difficult it may be. That’s our ultimate challenge, to find holiness even in the depths of despair.
Over and over again in the Torah, we are told to choose good over evil. In order to stress this, in this week’s Torah portion Ki Teitzei, we are given 74 of the 613 commandments in the Torah, even as the Torah portion ends in the command to us to remember the particular evil that Amalek did to us by attacking us on our exodus from Egyptian servitude, from the rear, targeting the stragglers, when we were faint and weary. In other words, even in the darkness and the evil in this world, we must follow G-d’s ways and do what is right—from sending away the mother bird from the nest before taking her eggs to the way we go to non-compulsory war by showing a degree of compassion in how we act even towards women captives.
Everyone is confronted with levels of pain and suffering, as I heard said that: “there aren’t enough people for all the pain in the world!” The challenge is to resist hopelessness and the loss of one’s integrity, and nevertheless to choose to do good. As we approach Rosh Hashanah, we have the opportunity to do teshuva and to try to influence G-d’s decree for us for the new year, but in the end, G-d is the ultimate Judge. He doesn’t ask us; He tells us what will be for us. Of course, we have the opportunity to answer G-d’s call to us and the responsibility to choose righteousness even in a distressed world and in trying times. In essence, the underlying test of it all is not only to survive the challenges we must face, but also to emerge from them as better people with purified souls.