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HOW TO DEAL WITH STORMS IN LIFE?

Friday, 5 January, 2018 - 12:00 pm

A man wanted a boat more than anything. His wife kept refusing, but he bought one anyway. “In the spirit of compromise,” he told her, “why don't you name the boat?"  Being a good sport, she accepted.

When her husband went to the dock for his maiden voyage, he saw the name painted on the side:  “For Sale.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Shemot, the Torah discusses how the Jews came down to Egypt and the long exile began.

We are in the middle of a major snowstorm in New York. Many are asking, how do we deal with vulnerabilities in life?

The Talmud says: The Rabbis taught: A person should always be pliant as the reed and let him never be hard as the cedar.

The Talmud is referring to an important idea in life, seen in the old story about the cedar tree and the reeds.

Alongside a river, a cedar tree and a patch of reeds grew side by side. The cedar tree was strong and proud; its enormous trunk and branches were tall and splendid, reaching far above the tops of the slender reeds below. Its majestic height and powerful appearance made the flimsy reeds nearby appear completely inferior.

One day, a great storm came from across the river, and the strong winds blew with all their might.  The cedar tree, as strong as it was, was toppled over by the winds; yet the reeds were still standing after the storm.

“How did you manage to survive the storm?” the cedar tree wondered. The reeds replied calmly, “We were not blown over because we were flexible and moved with the wind. Although you are strong, you fought against the wind and lost. We, the soft little reeds, allowed ourselves to sway with the wind. When the wind finished “venting its anger,” we remained standing.

This is the meaning of the Talmudic injunction, “be a reed, not a cedar.” This is one of the most important teachings in life—in marriage, business, or relationships. Allow yourself to be flexible like the reed. Don’t fight about everything. Learn to compromise and understand things from another’s perspective. Learn to find different alternatives to work things out. Don’t remain stuck; learn to bend.

Some people think that flexibility equals passivity and spinelessness. The truth is the opposite: flexibility comes from a deeper self-confidence. When you lack self-confidence, you are fearful of any change that may rock your boat. You must be stubborn and unwavering. But when you possess an appreciation of your true inner worth, you realize that flexibility only makes you bigger and stronger. A rule in life is, you must be willing to stretch if you want to grow.

In North Africa, the natives have a very easy way to capture monkeys. A gourd, with a hole just sufficiently large so that a monkey can thrust his hand into it, is filled with nuts and fastened firmly to a branch of a tree at sunset.

During the night a monkey will discover the source of the scent of food, put his hand in the gourd, and grasp a handful of nuts. But the hole is too small for the monkey to withdraw his clenched fist, and he has not sense enough to let go of his bounty so he may escape. Thus he pulls and pulls without success, and when morning comes he is easily taken.

In this sense (only), Darwin was right. Some people act just like monkeys.

“Some minds are like finished concrete—thoroughly mixed and permanently set.” They will never budge an inch. They will never let go of their paradigms, habits, or perspectives through which they see the world.

Inflexibility at all costs is a weakness, not a strength. Life brings storms, and when the storm comes—and it will—inflexible cedar tress break. But when you are a reed, you allow yourself the agility to explore a new way; you go with the wind and don’t fight it, and grow from the experience.

Of course, a person must have things about which he or she is inflexible—our inner moral core, our inner truth, our relationship with G-d. But these are the roots of the reeds, which are underground, protected from the storm. Yet the outer, exterior and visible aspects of the reed allows it to sway with the wind. When it comes to my integrity as a human being and as a Jew, I must be sturdy, steadfast, consistent and fully committed. When it comes to a question of Shabbat, Kashrut, Mikvah, Torah education, I don’t just “go with the wind.” But when it comes to the question of which wall paper we will get for the bathroom, where we will go on vacation, which restaurant we are going to, will the window be open or closed—be flexible. As a rabbi, couples come periodically to discuss their marital issues. One of the key issues at the heart of much of the strife is the unwillingness of both parties to show any flexibility, to compromise even in the slightest bit. As the T-shirt reads: “I am easy to get along with, once you learn to worship me.”

A young man once came to the famed Polish sage and leader, Rabbi Meir Shapiro (1887-1934), the Rabbi of Lublin and the founder of Daf Yomi, for advice before assuming the position of a community rabbi. Reb Meir Shapiro told him one of the simplest and most brilliant pieces of advice ever given to a rabbi, but real advice for any person:

If it is a question of protecting Jewish life, of preserving the Jewish way of life, of Kiddush Hashem (G-d’s honor), and the truth of Torah, then you must be a rock. No storm will beat you down, because G-d is the creator of all storms and you are working for G-d, not for man. But if it is a question of worldly pursuits and matters, if it is an issue of politics, materialism, esthetics, leisure, comfort, taste, personal desire and habit—learn to hide in the cleft of a rock.

There is a story about a ship that sank. It was not the size of the Titanic, and there were no lifeboats or helicopters or Navy divers. Yet this story took place in the Mediterranean, back in the second century ACE. In the boat was one of the most important figures in Jewish history: Rabbi Akiva.

The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot relates: "I was once traveling on a ship," recounted the great sage and leader of the Jewish Supreme Court, Rabban Gamliel, "when I saw another ship that had been wrecked. My heart grieved especially for one of its passengers, the Torah Sage Rabbi Akiva. When I reached land and resumed my studies I suddenly saw him sitting before me and discussing halachic matters with me." When Rabban Gamliel inquired as to who had rescued him from the sea, Rabbi Akiva replied:

"A board from the ship came my way and I clung to it. When each wave came surging towards me, I bowed my head, letting it pass over me."

In this one-liner of Rabbi Akiva, we have a perspective on life. All of us must confront raging waves of life coming over us. All of us at some point in our lives feel that our “ship” has been broken, and we are out at sea alone, submerged in frigid and angry waters. You need to learn, says Rabbi Akiva, how to “wave” to the waves. Don’t fight your storm, don’t resist the changes in your life, learn to embrace them. Don’t fight the waves, rather allow yourself to make peace with them, to welcome them, to find the opportunities that lay in them, and then you will survive and thrive.

Many of us often develop certain hopes and expectations for our lives. When they don’t turn out the way we expected, we live the remainder of our lives resentful, disappointed, feeling abandoned and wrecked. We forever battle the waves that have come our way. Rabbi Akiva taught a different way: Welcome each wave. Bow your head to it. Make peace with your storm instead of battling it.

Once, General Douglas MacArthur instructed his soldiers to move backward from the front. Someone asked him: Have we been defeated? Are we retreating? And he said: "We are not retreating; we are advancing in another direction."

Hold on to Torah and Mitzvot. Bow your head to the wave, turn crisis into opportunity. Utilize every challenge as a springboard for ever increasing growth.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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