Please note: This week's article is a bit long. I feel it deals with a major issue that many of us face and requires a perspective change, however it took me a bit to get to that. I think it's well worth the few minutes it will take.
Have a good Shabbos,
HASHEM, You Owe Me - and You Owe Me Big Time
HASHEM, I don't mean to complain, but you owe me. I mean, just look at everything I do for you. I daven. I put on tefilin. I eat only kosher. It's not easy, you know. When I'm on the road, there are times when I can barely find a snack. But more than that, I never miss a day of the daf. Each morning at 6:25 AM, there I am in shul, Starbucks cup in hand, sitting back ready to listen.
And, what do I gain from all of this? Nothing. It's not about me. These are simply things that I do for you. They make you happy, so I do them. So naturally, after all the things that I do for you, in return, I expect a few things, minor things, like health, food, clothing, money, a house, a car, and a vacation each year - just the bare necessities of life.
What's wrong with this picture? To answer this, we need to step away from our limited perspective.
Life is Like a Dream
Imagine you are aboard a large ship, set out on a beautiful ocean voyage. Not a care in the world, you relax to enjoy a well-earned break. On the second day of the journey, towards evening, the weather turns bad. Pelting rain. Howling winds. The vessel, once looming and enormous, seems to shrink as it is tossed and thrown by the ocean. You go down to your room and lie down to a fitful sleep. In the middle of the night, you awake with a jolt. The floor is bucking. The walls are shaking. You get out of bed and stumble, almost falling. You catch yourself and lurch to the door of your cabin.
Holding onto anything you can grab, you fight your way up to the deck and emerge to see nothing - a night as dark as pitch. The ship itself seems to be tearing apart with every roll and surge of the ocean. "This is bad," you think to yourself. But you don't realize how bad it is until you see the captain's face as he addresses the crew. Abject terror grips him as he cries out, "We're going down! Women and children first! Then every man for himself!"
Lifeboats fly overboard. People run. Jump. Almost as if in a dream, you move forward. You don't know how, you don't know why, but you find yourself in the ocean. The water is freezing. You can't see. You're so numb, you almost can't feel. The blackness is everywhere. Somehow, you climb into an empty lifeboat - and pass out.
On the Island
Much later, you wake up, look around, and slowly come to your senses. "What? Huh? Where am I?" Slowly, you realize that you are shipwrecked on a deserted island. How much time has passed, you can't tell. Where you are, you have no idea. The one thing you do know is that you are famished, and parched. A long row of trees stands in front of you. You enter, stumbling, hoping against hope that someone, anyone is there. After a while, you notice a path. At first, it's just a break in the undergrowth; then slowly it becomes smoother and more defined. It leads you on to an opening. And you look out. In the distance stands a castle - moat and all - majestically set against a breathtaking backdrop of lush gardens and orchards. Almost trancelike, you walk towards it.
As you get closer, you notice that the long drawbridge covering the moat is down, and the gate to the castle is wide open. You cross the bridge and enter. Before you stretches a long and stately hallway with an enormous regal ceiling. Suddenly, you are overcome by the sweet aromas wafting in the air. You almost forgot how hungry you were, but now it all comes back to you in a flash.
The smells draw you into a magnificent dining room. In the center sits an ornately-carved, mahogany table, twenty feet long-laden with fresh food. You look around. No one is there. Not a sound can be heard. You don't know what to do. Your wonder doesn't last long, though, as the grumbling in your stomach pulls at you. You sit down into a plush armchair at the head of the table, and begin wolfing down everything within reach.
After a while, your appetite subsides a bit, and you look at the different foods on the table. You are amazed-astonished would be a better word. Every delicacy, every gourmet dish you have ever heard of and many that you don't even recognize, is set out on the table. It looks like it was all just prepared, waiting for someone. You continue eating until you are stuffed.
Slowly, you get up and wander about the room. Regal portraits adorn the walls. Gilded moldings trim the ceiling. You have never seen a room decorated with such care and attention to detail. "This is magnificent," you think to yourself.
You walk out into the hallway, and the plush carpeting almost melts under your step. You pass a sitting room and then a library, as you walk around the most striking, elegant mansion you have ever seen. In the center is a grand, circular staircase. You climb up to see a string of rooms. . . and one door is ajar. You enter. In front of you is a bed, beautifully made with satin sheets, a ruffled pillowcase, and the bed sheets turned down invitingly. Your sense of wonder is overcome by sheer exhaustion. You lie down to sleep.
Twelve hours later, much refreshed, you awaken to the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Heading back down those elegant stairs you climbed last night, you again see the dining room table filled with food, but this time with breakfast fare: eggs, pancakes, waffles, toast, and freshly-squeezed orange juice. The armchair is pulled out, and in front of it is a plate of your favorite food: pancakes with maple syrup. You sit down to a grand repast. After having your fill, you get up and go out for a walk to the back veranda.
In front of you stretches a beautifully-tended garden, with rosebushes and daffodils - all trimmed back, all arranged with great precision. You go for a long walk. When you return, you again find the dining room table set, but this time with lunch meats, fried potatoes, and Caesar salad. Again your chair is pulled out. It is becoming clear that something is going on.
That evening, as you climb back up the staircase and find the door to your room door open again, this time with a fire lit in the fireplace, the sheets turned down, and the shades drawn, it hits you, "Someone is here. Someone is watching. Someone is taking care of me. But I don't see a soul. I don't hear a sound."
The next day as you walk into the gardens, you discover a trail, heading into the woods. You follow it, and it leads you to a brook - crystal clear water gently flowing over a bed of rocks. "I always read about babbling brooks, but I never knew they actually made that sound," you think to yourself. "It is so peaceful. Serene." You reach down, cup your hands, scoop up some water, bring it to your lips for a nice cool drink - when you suddenly see a large yellow sign. Please! Please, do not drink from this brook. The water is poison." You drop your hands; the water falls through your fingers. "Hmmmm...The sign. Who put it here? And the paint is fresh. It looks like it was just placed there today. Strange."
You continue your walk, following the brook as it leads you to the other side of the island. You emerge into a clearing, and your breath leaves you as you see-a lagoon! Magnificent white sand surrounds a small lake of placid, warm water. "It looks so tempting. I think I'll go in for dip."
As you walk closer, you see another sign: "Please! Please do not swim here. This lagoon is infested with man eating piranhas."
You look into the water, and there they are large, innocent looking fish - with the sharpest teeth you have ever seen. "Who put the sign there? What is going on?!"
The Secret Discovered
And this continues. Day after day, week after week, your every need is taken care of, your every requirement met, your every desire catered to. After an entire year of living in the castle, one morning as you come down the grand staircase, there is a rustling in the kitchen. Dishes clatter, frying pans clang, and a spoon scrapes against metal - someone is there!
You call out in a booming voice that you almost don't recognize. "I don't know who you are, I don't know why you are doing this-but you make a mean roast beef. And those waffles. I mean, they are great. Thank you."
Suddenly, the kitchen door flies open, and a parade of cooks, chefs, and wait staff pours out. Behind them walks the master of the manor. He motions for quiet. Everyone listens in revered silence as he speaks. "You have recognized me. You realized that I have been caring for you. Not only that, but you have thanked me. And even more, you obeyed my warnings. Not once did you drink the poisonous water. For all this, I am deeply, deeply appreciative. I don't even have words to express how happy you have made me! And so, I feel that I must reward you. Because of what you have done, this mansion, its servants, its lands and holdings all belong to you - as a small token of my appreciation for this great service that you done for me. "
What This Means
This is a parable to life. We are that guest and HASHEM is the master of the manor. From the time that we arrive on this planet, our every need is taken care of, and every requirement has been anticipated and planned for. We enjoy luxuries, pleasures, sights, sounds, flavors, aromas and tastes, each carefully designed and crafted for our enjoyment. We were given, health, well-being, food, clothing, a home, and our very existence. And HASHEM has given us a very exact game plan. Do this and don't do that. This will help you grow and accomplish. This will damage you.
What does HASHEM ask in return? That we recognize Him. That we cut through the darkness and realize that there is a master to this home. Someone sets the table and cooks the food. If we recognize this, we are richly rewarded. If we manage to actually perceive our Creator, we acquire our World to Come, which is so magnificent that it defies description.
One of the hallmarks of maturity is understanding, and one of the understandings of a mature person is that HASHEM doesn't need us. HASHEM lacks nothing and needs nothing. HASHEM created us to give to us, expecting nothing in return. He gave us all of the tools we need and the opportunity to spend a lifetime growing and accomplishing. And He gave us a system of self-perfection. The mitzvahs are the vehicles that allow us to grow.
While it is true that if we follow the Torah system, we will be rewarded for eternity - it isn't because we deserve it. It is because our Creator is giving, loving and kindly. Everything that we do doesn't help HASHEM. Torah, mitzvahs, emunah, bitachon - HASHEM doesn't gain from them. We do. We improve; we grow. For eternity, we will be what we shaped ourselves into: great or mediocre, accomplished or impoverished. The greatest gift that HASHEM gave us is the gift of life. He also gave us health, well-being, and our very existence - all for our good, all for our benefit.
"HASHEM you owe me. You owe me big time."
Ah... somehow, I just don't think so.