Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

The Obstacles in Your Path: Threats or Challenges?

Re’eh

What is the difference between a threat and a challenge?

As far as their effect on you, it is pretty obvious: a threat paralyzes whilst a challenge motivates and empowers.

But, what does it depend on whether an obstacle is defined as a threat or a challenge?

While it largely depends on one’s attitude and perspective, is there anything that can help one see obstacles as challenges rather than threats?

In this week’s reading, Re’eh [1], we can find an answer.

The reading opens with the verse [2] “See, I am placing before you today, a blessing and a curse.” How does one understand that G-d, who is the infinite source of goodness, puts curses in our path?

One explanation is that precisely by knowing that it comes from G-d, it stops being seen as a curse —threat— but as a blessing in disguise, that is: a challenge and an opportunity.

In the Chassidic teachings we learn about two types of divine goodness, the revealed and the hidden. At first glance, anyone would like to receive revealed goodness. Given the choice, who would opt for hidden goodness that masquerades as evil rather than visible and tangible goodness?

Now, what if you are given a choice between receiving limited goodness and infinite goodness?

I imagine that no one would hesitate to choose infinite goodness.

Now comes the real challenge: If infinite goodness comes disguised as evil and revealed goodness is limited, what would you choose?

I imagine you would choose infinite revealed goodness. This is what we wish for when we say Leshanah Tovah Umetukah —a good and sweet year— meaning to say that it not only be “good”, but that it also be perceived as such, that it also be “sweet”.

But, as long as the wish is not fulfilled in its entirety, what do we do with the apparent evil that we have to deal with in life?

The answer is: Re’eh. Look. “Look and see from Whom it comes,” says G-d, “and that I put it in your way.” What seems to you to be a “curse” is due to your limited perspective. If you were to be aware of the fact that everything comes from Me, you would know that it is a goodness that is infinitely superior to the good that you can appreciate, even if you do not yet (nor ever) understand how it is so.

Merely by recontextualizing “evil” and seeing it as a challenge already serves to put you in a higher place than that of the victim you thought you were before seeing it as an empowering challenge. Once you stop wondering if it’s for your benefit or not, you’ll find a way to tap into and release the positive potential it holds for you and others.

On the subject of perception, we find another interesting lesson:

In this week’s reading we read about which fish, birds and animals are Kosher —fit for our consumption— and which are not. In the list of birds, there are two species that call attention by their names and implications: the Chasidah (stork) and the Raah (vulture). “Why is it called Chasidah?” asks the Talmud [3]. Because it does kindness to its companions in matters of feeding. As for the Ra’ah (vulture), our sages say [4] that it is called so because of its sharp eyesight (Ra’ah from the word Reiyah, seeing). How sharp is its eyesight? From here (Babylon) it can see carrion in Israel.

One of the reasons the Torah forbids us to eat certain foods is because of the negative characteristics they have, and by eating them we would be incorporating them into ourselves. Why, then, with positive qualities such as goodness and sharp eyesight, are we forbidden to consume the stork and the vulture?

One explanation is: although the stork does goodness, it does so only with regard to its companions. It is not the kind of kindness that is expected of us. We should aspire to be kind to everyone, no matter how close they are to us and how much personal satisfaction and return that would generate for us. As for the vulture: sharp eyesight is a good thing if one uses it to see the good in others and the opportunity to help them, and not if one uses it mainly to see the weaknesses in others and the opportunity to take advantage of them.

So this week’s tool is: the first step in the process of assessing a situation is to evaluate the eyes with which you look at the situation. When you see what seems to be a threatening, paralyzing situation, remember that by changing your perception (knowing that infinite goodness often comes disguised) you can transform it into a motivating challenge which will then empower you to overcome it.

—————

Deuteronomy, 11:26-16:17
Ibid 11:26
Midrash Agadah, Deuteronomy 14:18
Chulin, 63b

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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