“Man plans, God laughs.”
I learned to dislike this Yiddish saying 25 years ago, on the weekend our daughter would become a bat mitzvah.
Years of preparation and months of planning were complete. She was ready to daven, to read Torah, to interpret the parasha for the congregation. My husband and I were ready— we would also read Torah, and we’d speak to her from the pulpit. We would host a family dinner at the synagogue after Kabbalat Shabbat services and kiddush lunch for the congregation after Shabbat morning services. The celebration would conclude with a casual party for friends and family aboard a riverboat on the Mississippi. We planned and planned, and when the planning was done, kept an eye on the forecast, hoping the sun would shine on us all weekend.
My mother watched the planning unfold with great anticipation and unflagging determination to celebrate with us. She had been diagnosed with stage four cancer two years earlier. At that time, it seemed like a long shot that she’d still be with us for her first grandchild’s bat mitzvah. But, make it she did. It was a triumph of modern medicine and her unbreakable will.
So, on Friday afternoon, a few hours before it was time to go to the synagogue, after my husband and I had shooed all four kids to their rooms to “rest.” We lay down ourselves and sighed with gratitude and relief. The day was here. My mom was here. We made it.
Then the phone rang.
It was my younger brother, calling to say that our Mom had fallen in her apartment and appeared to have broken her leg.
In the background, I could hear her imploring him to get her off the ground and into her wheelchair. Because she was NOT going to any hospital. She was going to her granddaughter’s bat mitzvah.
And that is what she did. Only after Shabbat dinner concluded did she agree to go to the hospital. She would consent to being admitted only if a plan could be formulated to allow her to attend services Saturday morning.
My husband spent most of the night at the hospital making the doctors understand what this simcha meant to my mom. A broken leg is easier to fix than a broken heart. By morning he had worked out the logistics. My mom was at the synagogue, sedated for pain, with a nurse to attend to her. But she was there. My husband’s speech to our daughter got a last-minute rewrite. There wasn’t a dry eye in the sanctuary.
Afterwards, my mom returned to the hospital and had surgery the next day. The party boat set sail that evening under a cloudless sky. Sun present, my mother absent.
All weekend well-meaning people offered up the saying, “Man plans, God laughs.”
The phrase is not a statement about God, but a frank recognition of the folly of human certitude in an unpredictable world. Yes, we plan, but so much is simply beyond our control. I recoiled from this saying — and still do — because it contains a truth that’s painful to face. Life requires us to adjust our plans, our mindset, our expectations, our hopes, again and again.
How do we do that?
A powerful example is offered in the luminous memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, by Heather Lanier. Expecting her first child, Lanier was a meticulously careful pregnant mother, determined to birth a ‘SuperBaby’; an ultra-healthy human destined for high achievement. After baby Fiona is born, Lanier and her husband discover that she has an extremely rare genetic syndrome that causes developmental delays and myriad physical challenges. Fiona may not live past the age of 2.
So begins the journey for Lanier, as the ‘plans’ she made collapse and a new plan must emerge. At first, Lanier can’t stop comparing her baby to the other babies she sees — she describes her envy and anguish with raw honesty. But as her fierce love for her little girl grows, she shifts her thinking from “What will my child be able to do?” to “How can I best love my girl just as she is?”
For Lanier’s Episcopal priest husband, years of training in Zen meditation have equipped him to make this shift. It’s Heather Lanier’s journey that’s will crack your heart wide open.
Nourishment, movement, language — these were enormous challenges that Lanier and little Fiona tackled together. The love that blossoms between them is transformative. “Loving my daughter tenderizes me, makes me more human” Lanier writes, “And yes, my chest sometimes aches from this work. But the ache in my chest is a cousin of joy.” It also deepens her faith. “Loving my daughter was bringing me closer to the verb of God. We were living something divine, my daughter and me.”
Lanier’s memoir is perfect reading for Elul, when we stretch our souls toward God, in preparation for the High Holy Days. Soon we will pray “Avinu Malkeinu,” beseeching God to inscribe us in the book of good life, in the book of livelihood and sustenance. We will whisper our cherished hopes for the year ahead. But, living through this time of pandemic and awful uncertainty, our plans, our mindset, our expectations, and our hopes will need revising again and again.
In our brokenness and vulnerability, we pray that God will give us the strength and wisdom we need to cope with the unpredictable year ahead.