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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Life's Big Picture

My credo in life has always been: Work hard, plan, and struggle. Yet I find that things often just end up a big mess. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. How can the pieces of this puzzle possibly fit together?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The premise for this question comes from a certain lack of perspective. Somehow we imagine that the world began when we're born, and ends when we die. Everything that happened beforehand is lumped together as "ancient history." If I can't understand it today, then it must not make sense at all.

The following story has a very deep message:

There once was a farmer who owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. All the people in the town came to console him because of the loss. "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a bad thing and maybe it's not."

A few days later, the horse returned to the farm accompanied by 20 other horses. (Apparently he had found some wild horses and made friends!) All the townspeople came to congratulate him: "Now you have a stable full of horses!" "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a good thing and maybe it's not."

A few days later, the farmer's son was out riding one of the new horses. The horse got wild and threw him off, breaking the son's leg. All the people in town came to console the farmer because of the accident. "Oh, I don't know," said the farmer, "maybe it's a bad thing and maybe it's not."

A few days later, the government declared war and instituted a draft of all able-bodied young men. They came to the town and carted off hundreds of young men, except for the farmer's son who had a broken leg. "Now I know," said the farmer, "that it was a good thing my horse ran away."

The point of this story is obvious. Life is a series of events, and until we've reached the end of the series, it's hard to know exactly why things are happening. That's one reason the Torah commands us to give respect to every elderly person - because through the course of life experience, they have seen the jigsaw puzzle pieces fall into place.

It is interesting that one of the weekly Torah portions, "Miketz," ends on a bad note, and is then resolved at the beginning of the following week. Why didn't the Torah simply extend "Miketz" a few verses and have it end good? Because the Torah wants to communicate the lesson that we don't always see the whole picture. More than any other Biblical account, the story of Joseph illustrates the lesson "that everything turns out good in end." In order to drive home this lesson, the Torah makes us wait one week to find out the ending!

The truth is that we are here on Earth for short time. We do not see the "Big Picture." We don't know all the details that happened before we were here, and we certainly don't know what will happen after we're gone. It is unfair to take a single event out of context. Why did it happen? We might not see the answer immediately; we might not even see in our lifetime.

In truth, it is often when things look the most grim that they then turn around. The night is at its absolute darkness just moments before the first rays of morning sun begin to illuminate the sky.

In the morning prayer service, we say, "Blessed are You, God, Who forms light and creates darkness..." Judaism says that the darkness is not a negative, but rather is a necessary step along the path toward light. Only because of our limited perception, do we perceive the darkness as an end unto itself.

A seed, when placed in the ground, is in a dark, cold and dirty place. The seed then begins to decay. To the onlooker, it looks like death. And then, at the very moment that the seed has completely broken down, something miraculous happens. It begins to sprout.

Think about your life, your career, your relationships with others and with God. Was the process smooth? In general, have you experienced greater growth when times have been tough or when times have been smooth?

From the darkness comes light.

Acting in the Image of God

I often see a reference to people being “created in the image of God.” I think this is a beautiful way to treat others, but I don't always see people acting this way. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

The verse in Genesis 1:27 primarily teaches that the human being – like God – has a degree of free will and independence.

But you are correct that the idea of “image of God” should spill over into our interpersonal relationships as well. We should treat others with kindness and respect because every human is created in the image of God. Irrespective of race, level of intelligence, or degree of physical fitness. In identifying the Godliness within each person, we not only honor the individual, but bring more of God's presence into the world as well.

Consider the following story, which occurred about 100 years ago in Europe:

One day, a man reported that a great rabbi was walking down the road, heading into town for an unexpected visit. This was truly a special occasion! Word spread quickly, and all the townspeople hurried to dress in their finest Shabbos clothes, in order to great the rabbi with great honor and respect.

Soon after, however, it was discovered that the original report was mistaken, and the man thought to be a great rabbi was in fact just an ordinary traveler. So all the townspeople went back to their activities, leaving the traveler to fend for himself. Except for one person. He went out to greet the stranger grandly, and invited him to be the guest of honor at a lavish meal.

The other townspeople saw this and inquired: "Why are you bothering – he's no great rabbi!" To which the man replied, "A human being is a human being. And we must honor him just the same."

Why Study Torah

I have a religious cousin who is always urging me study Torah. What is the big deal about Torah study, any more than mathematics or gardening?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Torah study is regarded as the most important of all mitzvahs, because it opens the door for observance of the other mitzvahs. As the Talmud says: "The study of Torah is equal to the sum total of all other mitzvahs" (Shabbat 127a).

Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, in his book "On Judaism" (Shaar Press), beautifully explains the importance of Torah study:

"Study of Torah is a specific mitzvah in Deuteronomy 6:7 (which we recite daily in the Shema): "You shall teach them diligently to your children" - which directs us to transmit Torah to the next generation... "and you shall speak of them (words of Torah) while you sit at home, while you walk on the way, when you go to bed and when you get up" - which directs us to study the Torah ourselves. This need to devote ourselves to knowing the Torah, to work at it, to strive to comprehend it, to give it first priority - is repeated over and over again throughout the Bible...

"Our history demonstrates that the moment study of Torah is neglected, assimilation of the Jewish people into its surroundings makes its inroad. Without fail, every Jewish community in history that did not teach and study Torah as its first priority gradually disappeared from the scene.

"Beyond all the good, rational reasons, Torah is the mysterious bridge which connects the Jew and God, across which they interact and communicate, and by means of which God fulfills His covenant with His people to sustain them and protect them.

"It is therefore no surprise that Torah study is so central with us. It is the first blessing a newborn child receives: "May he grow up to Torah, to the wedding canopy, and to good deeds." The prayer book is filled with petitions to God to help us understand His Torah. No wonder Rebbe Akiva in the Talmud states that to expect a Jew to live without Torah is like expecting a fish to live without water. That's because the fact is that the Torah is the essence of the Jewish people, our very life and soul, and without it we literally have no existence.

"This explains why, in a traditional Jewish community, the one who is looked up to and most admired is the scholar of Torah - not the entertainer or the athlete.

"When we study Torah, we are not studying an abstract and arcane text of the ancient world. We are studying the way in which God wants us to live on this earth... (We) are in fact engaged in discovering the essence of Judaism, which is to say, the essence of ourselves."

In my experience, and that of millions of Jews throughout the ages, Torah study is the single most satisfying endeavor that a Jew can undertake. Torah reveals to us "the mind of God," and contains the deepest secrets of the universe.

So I join your cousin in urging you: Join a Torah study class and get yourself some of this awesome pleasure. If you tell me what city you're located in, I'll be happy to recommend someone that you could contact.