When Life Doesn’t Turn Out the Way You Expected

28 Jul
July 28, 2014

In a “Frank and Ernest” cartoon, you see Frank rousing slowly from his sleep, then looking out at the sun coming up. He says dryly, “Well, the sun is rising in the east . . . so far, so good.”

There is a beautiful story back in the book of Genesis. Abraham is complaining to God that life hasn’t turned out the way he imagined it would. Here he is almost 100 years old and he has no heir to take over his house someday. The writer in Genesis tells us that God brought Abram outside and said to him, “Look at the heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

If you were Abraham, at almost a hundred, and your wife Sarah was almost 90, what would you have thought? Yeah, me too. In fact Sarah thought it was so ridiculous that she laughed out loud in God’s face at the very thought of it. But, of course according to the Torah what did happen? Yep, by the next year at age 90 Sarah had given birth to a son, and in honor of her laughter she called him “Isaac” – “Yitzhak” – laughter.

What is the Torah teaching us? Is it merely that God can create miracles like getting a 90 year old woman pregnant? (And by the way is that any more hard to believe than that other religion’s “virgin birth” story?) The lesson seems to teach us that in times of doubt and despair, when things are not turning out as we had imagined, the answer is: “Look at the heaven, and number the stars.”

What kind of answer is that? “Look at the heavens and number the stars?” It is a call to gratitude and awe and wonder. Who are we to think that we have the kind of power and control over our lives and our environment that things will always turn out as we had planned? Perhaps standing in awe of the magnitude of the universe, in wonder at the unfathomable wisdom that even a simple flower in our garden represents, let alone the mystery of how we are here at all – standing erect, creating language, manipulating space to create skyscrapers that reach to the heavens, shuttles that fly us into space, and daily continue to unravel even the most microscopic of genetic codes of life?

Ma gadlu maasekha Adonai, kulam bekhokhma asita…How manifold are your creations O God, you have created them all with remarkable wisdom.” These words of Jewish liturgy call us to stand in mute wonder at the mystery and marvel of creation itself. Indeed, how could any of us actually do what God asked Abraham to do, “Look at the heaven and number the stars” and not feel incredibly blessed that we have been given the most precious gift of all, the gift of life. The ability to create, and invent and love every single day of our lives, regardless of whether each individual plan, or scheme, or idea of ours pans out exactly as we had planned.

Judaism’s answer to despair and fear – “Look at the heaven and number the stars.” The world has endured and will endure – fundamental faith that our God is a God who literally lights up the universe of which we are a part. Albert Einstein once said, “There are ultimately only two possible ways of looking at the universe – either nothing is a miracle or everything is…and I choose to see a universe of miracles.”

So when life doesn’t turn out as we had planned, it is time to re-evaluate our plans. After all, how many of us can draw a straight line in our lives from the first glimmer of an idea to it’s ultimate success? How often does that really happen? The reality is that life is messy, complicated. It is like the challenge of learning to walk. We fail our way to success. In fact most of the time failure is exactly the road to success – in business, in school, in learning just about anything, in relationships, in love, in everything that matters most.

Watch a baby struggling to learn to walk and you will see the microcosm of all of our lives. Stand up, and fall down. Stand up again, and fall down again. And keep standing and falling until one day we stand and stay up. Everyone around us cheers – yeah! What an accomplishment. The first of many, of countless others, if we have learned the lesson that success is the reward for falling down, and then getting up again. It’s not the falling down that counts, it’s the getting up again. Then and always.

What if the first time we tried to walk we fell down and just stayed down. Imagine the self-talk of a baby: “Wow, that didn’t feel good. I failed. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know what to do to make it work. I better quit because I obviously don’t know what I am doing and at this rate I’ll probably never figure it out.” And if that had been our inner dialogue, our self-talk, we’d all be still sitting on the floor.

Same story with riding a bike. Same story with learning to do just about anything worthwhile in life. Success isn’t in whether or not we have hurdles in life, it is whether we keep standing up and running and jumping until we finally clear the hurdles. Because everyone has hurdles.

I’ve said this many times, but I can’t help repeating because it is to me the most powerful and precise metaphor for all our lives: the simple EKG. They hook you up to the wires and measure how your heart is doing and what does it look like? If you are alive, it looks like this__—___—___—___—___—___—___. If instead it looks like this ________________________ what does it mean? Yep, you’re dead. You don’t want it to look like _____________ because that isn’t living. It’s the same with every challenge of life. The very pulse of life itself is up and down and up and down and up and down forever.

We are coming to the end of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Torah where we read how God challenged Moses and the Israelites with one of the most powerful and profound messages in all our sacred literature. You’ve all heard it before. God says, “I set before you this day life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live and thrive on the land which I am giving you.”

That simple message, “Choose life,” which seems so obvious, is perhaps the single most difficult, most challenging of all the choices we make in life. Why? Because who is to say which of the experiences, opportunities, relationships in our lives will turn out to be the blessings, and which will turn out to be the curses?

If it were so easy, so simple, so self-evident which was which, wouldn’t we always choose blessings? Of course we would. But it isn’t so simple, and it isn’t always so clear, and it isn’t always so easy to tell the difference.

I am willing to bet just about anything, that every one of us here tonight has a personal story that would bear this out. Twenty-five years ago I was living in the valley and looking for a job, interviewing at any synagogue that was available hoping to be hired as their rabbi. Then, the perfect pulpit opened up at exactly the right time in exactly the right place – Northridge.

I knew I was perfect for the position. I was already in the valley and had already been working as the associate rabbi for six years at Temple Judea. I was pretty sure I had earned a fairly good reputation as a rabbi in that time. I was well known in the valley, I had just gotten an award from the Jewish Federation for starting the largest full-service homeless shelter in Los Angeles, I had lots of congregants who were already living in Northridge, and to top it all off, I even knew someone on the search committee itself.

What could be more perfect? Perfect job, perfect opportunity – I wouldn’t have to move, custody with Gable would remain the same, one blessing after another. In fact, they were looking for a cantor at the same time and I was so confident of getting the rabbi position that I encouraged a cantor friend of mine to apply as well so we could end up working together as a team. I went to the interview with total confidence and knew it was a slam dunk.

Sure enough, they hired my friend as their new cantor, and they hired my classmate from rabbinic school, a rabbi named Jerry Brown to be their new rabbi instead of me. I was devastated. Actually we were devastated. Life had certainly not turned out the way I expected. I remember the despair, the sense of failure, the self-doubt, I was certain I was in line for the blessing of a new job and a new life, and instead I got the curse of rejection.

And then this small Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades called Kehillath Israel announced they too were looking for a new rabbi. Yes it was only a couple hundred families in an old, fairly funky building, with a young 23-year-old cantor who had just started his first full-time job. It was a congregation with what appeared to be a huge turnover of professional staff – 3 rabbis, 3 cantors, 3 educators within 6 years. Didn’t sound very inviting or stable or clergy-friendly but I needed a job, and I really wanted to be the rabbi of my own congregation, so with heavy heart and a big sigh, I threw my kipah into the ring and applied for the position.

Who could have known that other than meeting Didi, it would turn out to be the greatest blessing of my life? 24 years later, here I am. With Chayim starting his 25th year and a congregation that has grown to nearly 1,100 families, the largest Reconstructionist congregation in the world.

Blessings and curses. Which is which? Whether it is a relationship that falls apart and then leads to meeting your beshert your “soul mate”, a job you lose that leads you to a new career or position you never would have tried or perhaps even considered, a school or college you didn’t get in to that ended up leading you to another setting where you found your life’s passion, or the love of your life, or a hundred other examples that each and every one of you here tonight if pressed could think of on your own, this is why our tradition teaches us to choose life in all it’s messiness and insecurity.

When life doesn’t turn out the way you expected, Judaism commands us to embrace life anyway. To wake up each morning and say Modeh ani lefanekha, Thank you God for the gift of my life and this free day, with all it’s endless possibilities.”

“Look to the heavens, “ God told Abraham, and stand in awe of the mystery and majesty and wonder of creation. From the tiniest atom from which you have been fashioned in all your splendor, to the vastness of the heavens and know that life is not simple, and life is not easy, and life is not clean – it is what it is.

When Israel was at its most vulnerable in the early days of the Yishuv – surrounded by 100 million heavily armed Arabs pledged to its destruction, practically no allies in the entire world, a mere handful of rifles and used weapons to rely on for protection, much of it’s very citizenry, wretched refugees with spirits and bodies broken from the horrors of the Holocaust, David Ben Gurion who became Israel’s first prime minister declared, “I not only believe in miracles, I rely upon them.”

“I rely upon them” – and that must be our faith as well. For it is that faith even in the face of the most daunting obstacles of life that is why we Jews are still here as a people after thousands of years of persecution, anti-Semitism and the desire for our destruction.
And every one of us, Jew and non-Jew alike are called upon to live our lives with faith – that perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps around the very next corner, each of us will discover that what appear to be the curses of our lives today can and will become the blessings of our tomorrows.

AMEN

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