The Sad Truth That Troubles Focus Us Better

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 10 Part 3

Moshe Rabbenu sparked Ran’s interest by referring to fear of Hashem as if it is easy to achieve. Ran’s first step in explaining that is to show that we all have a thoughtful side, which sees the world as it should, recognizes that we should aim to what’s ultimately true, Hashem and His service. It’s the other side, the sensory, that’s the problem.

The Triumph of Old Age

Prior essays in this series

As we get older, our senses dull and our urges recede, letting us see how fleeting the pleasures we too often chase are.  For that reason R. Shimon b. Akashya says, Kinim 3:6, that elderly עמי הארץ, those who allowed their sensory side free reign, become dissatisfied as they age, while the aging elderly who focused on Torah find themselves more and more serene.

He doesn’t say Torah scholars get wiser as they age, Ran notes, because some or many of them get weaker. Their increased serenity comes from life bearing out the validity of their choices.  As the sensory fades with age, their youthful choices, made when their urges were still at full strength, become a source of comfort.

Those who chose less wisely see old age with dismay, watching their bodies break down, their ability to find physical or sensory pleasure more limited.  They come to see, Ran thinks, how unwise it was to seek all those pleasures, how it has left them with little of lasting value.  Even so, they don’t have the tools to turn towards a more thoughtful way of living, since they have not taught themselves the ways of righteousness. They know they are on a hollow path, with little way to find a more satisfying one.

Difficult Times Help Us Turn Away from the Sensory

Part of the reason we are so drawn to the sensory, Ran says, is that that side of us sees and seeks only immediate gratification. A longer time frame requires more thoughtfulness, which our sensory sides reject. Our sensory side sees only what’s in front of it– as long as everything is well, a person in the grip of the sensory will opt to reject the need or value of change.

Times of trouble free such people from that narrowness of perspective. Illness, natural disasters, war, anything which interrupts the ordinary flow of life, wakes us to a broader picture.  As we see that we cannot guarantee our sensory experiences, that our existences are often or always more tenuous than we like to admit, we can, if we let ourselves, be redirected to a fuller view, one that takes both the short and long term into account.

That’s why Moshe Rabbenu stresses that the people with whom he is speaking have seen Hashem’s punishments. Their first-hand witness of the evanescence of pleasure should ease their way to focus more effectively and lastingly on that which matters.

Datan and Aviram as Paradigms of Failure

For Ran, that explains why Moshe spoke of Datan and Aviram instead of Korach, as long as we add one assertion Ran made to his audience. He says people focus on building a secure life for their children, financial and otherwise; that’s the central point of all their efforts. He says that’s true for all people at all times, that their dominant goal is leaving their children secure and comfortable.

Datan and Aviram showed how futile a focus that is, since their misdeeds led to their being wiped out with their families. Korach’s children didn’t die, as Bamidbar 26:11 notes, which is why he wasn’t mentioned here; he doesn’t teach that lesson.  We can work our whole lives for one goal and walk away with nothing.

Remembering that helps us choose our involvements more wisely, Ran believes. It points us in the direction of that which cannot be taken away from us, well-considered actions.

Lessons of the Black Death

Ran’s audience knows this first-hand. While earlier generations lived ordinary lives, thirteen years before his talk (dating this Drasha to 1361), the whole world was overturned (as much as two-thirds of Gerona Jewry died). Had it been an outbreak of an ordinary illness, Ran says, we could have seen it as part of how nature works. Extraordinary illnesses, he argues, are directly from Hashem (another assumption people today, even people of faith, vigorously deny).

That’s why Devarim 6:15 refers to Hashem removing illness and not placing illness upon us. Ills that come in the course of ordinary lives are natural, and need Hashem to remove them from us. Extraordinary ones, like plagues, are from Hashem, and what we need is that Hashem never place them upon us at all.

The Black Death, like the earth that swallowed Datan and Aviram, wiped out whole families. Ran assures his listeners that he’s not saying it was a punishment, just that it happened. And was happening again, in nearby lands (in fact, the Black Death returned periodically for hundreds of years). That should be enough to turn us away from the momentary and sensory and towards that which our more well-considered thought processes guide us, the permanent and lastingly important. Suffering can guide to where we should focus, if we let it.

Rabbinic sources speak of יסורין של אהבה, sufferings of love. This term troubles many, since what kind of love is it that has Hashem send us suffering? His answer is that Chazal were making the same point he was. Difficulties help us find our way to where we are supposed to go, ease our passage from the thrall of our senses to dedication to what Hashem wants.

I pause here for two points.  First, years ago I saw a study that reported that people who had undergone a life-changing event—a serious accident or illness, for example—found, two to five years later, that their lives were better than before the event. We sometimes only get where we need to go with a little push.

Second, Ran is reminding us that the twentieth century was not the first time that Jews have lost half or more of their population in a brief time. His reaction to his disaster is relevant to how we think of our tragedies as well.

Ubiquity and Simplicity of Teshuvah

We might understand Ran to be saying that trouble should lead us to penitence as a way to avoid that trouble, but he denies that.  He reads Moshe as encouraging the Jews to see that difficult times help us see the world more clearly, and from there to focus where we need/ought to. These difficulties bring us to better forms of teshuvah.

That’s why he says it’s “easy.” If we see our and others’ troubles in the right light, we will be able to put our sensory side in its proper place. This will, in fact, make it easy to follow the internal push towards that which is lastingly true, what is fulfilling long after we’ve aged out of the pleasures that can distract us along the way.

The push towards Hashem and His service.

About Gidon Rothstein

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