Sarah Shapiro
Sarah Shapiro

What the cow does

In an old neighborhood of Jerusalem, I stood with my daughter strapped to me in a Snugly baby-carrier, waiting to speak with a certain renowned rabbi. One of his assistants hurried out of the rabbi’s house and stopped for a minute to say hello and ask me how I was. “Fine, thank you,” I said. “But I’m here to talk with him about having lost control of myself a lot lately.

He squinted in the sunlight. “We so many times speak of losing control, though we never had the control in the first place. Like a car that thinks it’s driving itself, or a pipe that thinks it’s the source of the water flowing through it.” The front door opened and someone gestured to me to enter. “Be well!” called the assistant as he scurried off. I entered a high‑ceilinged, violet‑wallpapered dining room, dim and cool, a relief from the summer day.   Books lined the walls. I was shown into the living room, where at a table in the middle of the room sat the white‑bearded rabbi. A dish of melon slices lay before him on the table. He gestured to the chair opposite him. As I took a seat, he forked a slice of melon and slid it into a dish. “Here, please.”

“No, thank you.”

“You left your house without breakfast, maybe? Here.” He passed me the plate. “Of what would you like to speak?”

I had indeed left the yishuv without breakfast, and I doubt if anyone else had been able to eat either, so determined was I to make the eight o’clock bus to Jerusalem. “My anger, Rav Simcha. I lose my temper a lot with my family. My parents, and with my children. And my husband.”

“Often?”

I nodded. I was ashamed. “Yes. Even this morning, before I came here. I have four children under the age of 4. It’s very hard sometimes.” Would he feel sorry for me? No, he didn’t seem to. His eyes danced with happiness for my good fortune. “I want to change this about myself.”

“It is your nature.”

My nature? A weight of hopelessness clamped down upon me. “You mean I won’t be able to change?”

“Can an apple become a pear?” His black eyes twinkled. “You will have this nature until you die.”

Until I die? That couldn’t be. It couldn’t be that as an old woman I would still just be the same person I am now!

“Your Creator gave you this nature so that you would always have to work to overcome it.” He pointed to Elisheva. “Can she forget you?” I didn’t understand what he meant to ask, and wondered if it was his stilted English. I pulled in my chin and looked down at Elisheva’s tranquil face off in some unknown baby dream. Her eyelids flickered.

“Can you forget her?” he asked.

“Well, I…”

“She cannot forget you. Why can she not forget you? Because of her need for you. She is helpless. So in the same way did your Creator give you your nature, so that you would not be able to forget about Him. If you were always strong and perfect, you would feel that you are the creator of your own talent. It is only your weakness that brings you to an awareness of your Creator. It is your need that causes you to cry to Him. When you bump into a table, are you angry at the table?”

“No.”

“No, you don’t get angry at the table. So when someone hurts you or insults you or bothers you, or your little child does not obey you, shall you lash out? No. That human being is for you only the messenger. “My dear daughter, your Creator is saying, you have forgotten Me.” The rabbi’s face expanded with a smile as he awaited a reply, but I had none to offer. He was amused. Was I amusing him? Getting up abruptly from the table, the rabbi shuffled his feet lightheartedly and swung his arms. “How can I do this?” he asked. What in the world was he getting at? How could he do what? “How is it that I can walk? I walk because God gives me the power to walk. How do you walk?” He paused. I sat there, blank. “Because your Father in Heaven gives you the strength to walk. He also gives you the strength to restrain your temper, to go beyond your nature. In the moment that you hold yourself back from lashing out, God takes the g‑r‑eatest pleasure in you.”

I was skeptical that God would pay that much attention. Doesn’t He have more important things on His mind? “God would actually take pleasure in me? Really? Or are you just saying this to motivate me?”

Rav Simcha nodded with a glint in his eye that said, “How much this child has yet to know,” and pointed again to my baby. “Do you get nachas  from her?” I nodded. “Your Creator is a father. He also wants nachas  from His children. He wants you to love Him and remember Him, for your sake, because in this way you reach out of yourself. When you transcend your nature, you give your Creator much joy, and you all be the happiest person in the world.”

Ever on the lookout for guaranteed happiness, I was tempted by this prospect, but what if I couldn’t do it? “I doubt that I’d be able to keep that up very long,” I said.

“If you plant an apple seed in the evening, do you wake up in the morning to an apple tree?” Elisheva stirred in the Snugly. “It is a happiness to accept your weakness, or God has to keep on reminding you again and again. The reminder is the pain.”

“All right, I do think maybe I could succeed sometimes but I know I’ll fall back…”

“Do not be surprised when you fall. Do not be broken. What does the cow do when she falls down?”

What does the cow do? Dear me, I don’t know. If this were an exam, I’d flunk.

“She picks herself up again. When you fall, do not be broken, and when you succeed, do not be swallowed by pride. God is not in the brokenness nor in the pride.”

“But sometimes I feel so disappointed in myself.”

“Who are you to feel disappointed? Did you create yourself?”

A foreign concept. My mouth fell open.

“The sweetness of life,” the rabbi said with a grin, “is in the true struggle.”

About the Author
Sarah Shapiro, a journalist, editor, and writing instructor who made aliya to Jerusalem in 1976, is the author most recently of "An Audience of One," [Mosaica] https://www.amazon.com/Audience-One-other-stories/dp/1952370205
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