A couple of days ago, I had what was likely my last visit of the summer to the beach. While the chairs will sit in my trunk until about Chanukah, the towels have actually been washed and put away. As I was putting them in the container that gets stored in the way back of the coat closet, I thought about all the things I was supposed to do this summer. Baruch Hashem, I had an enjoyable and productive summer, but I didn’t get to everything on my “list.” Some things on my list were more meaningful than others; finishing the whole sefer Tehillim: Didn’t happen. Mastering homemade pasta: Did happen. Both of those things were seemingly in my control and I had full intentions of accomplishing both, yet it just didn’t happen.
I began thinking a lot about this idea of “I was supposed to (fill in the blank).” I was supposed to be here on time, but there was an unexpected accident on the Cross Bronx. I was supposed to bring you chocolate chip cookies for Shabbat, but my kid forgot to take them out of the oven so they burned. These are simple things that just didn’t happen because of things that were out of my control and in control of someone else. We generally use the phrase “Man plans, God laughs” when trying to make sense of more intense events in our lives, but there are plenty of times it’s just about being late to pick up at school or a meeting at work. This likely comes up multiple times throughout our day.
On the other hand, there are plenty of things throughout our day that do go completely as expected. Alarms go off according to how they were set the night before and we go throughout our day anticipating a couple of bumps, but many of us are lucky to have a routine schedule. Maybe there are a couple of hiccups, like a wrong Zoom ID for a meeting or a mother who forgot the carpool schedule for the new school year, but generally we can keep track of the day-to-day logistics. While most of us have a very “new normal” from what our lives were six months ago, we have come to terms with the new routine. There’s no doubt that there is a new sense of vulnerability in all of us, but this actually can be seen as a positive repercussion and allows us to have a more thoughtful approach to our day-to-day lives.
I’m sure I’m not alone with having a really hard time wrapping my head around the Yamim Noraim season. Part of me is still stuck on Purim and can’t really grasp where the past six months have gone. When pivoting back to the words “Mi BaMageifa” (Who will die from plague?) from last Rosh Hashanah, did anyone ever comprehend that we would actually live through a mageifa? During those intense weeks and months, our lives were completely turned upside down; we never once thought about what we were supposed to be doing because it was literally changing by the hour. It’s nothing short of a miracle that kids are back in school and we can safely enter our shuls and grocery stores. In a sense, we have some sense of control of our lives again.
As the yimei din approach and our fate for the upcoming year is soon being decided, I thought a lot about control. Torah-observant Jews have been indoctrinated with the concept that Hashem is in complete control of the world, yet my bechira still remains. So as we go about our lives and the mundane activities, we see that, in fact, lots of things are in our control and can have a positive ripple effect in our lives. Back in the day when I actually went to an office every morning, if I picked out an outfit the night before, my morning was much smoother. Something simple and mundane that was totally in my control; I put in a simple effort and yielded a positive result. Living this life doesn’t mean we think we’re completely in control and Hashem is not involved. Quite the contrary. It means we have figured out a way to healthily incorporate Hashem into the mundane in our lives.
It tends to be the bigger things in our lives that don’t have those same results. And we can classify those parts of our lives to things that were not supposed to be. For example, I requested the best teacher for my kid, so he/she is supposed to have a successful school year. I went to a good school and did well, so I am supposed to have financial stability. I am making more money than I ever expected, so I am supposed to be happy. My spouse is a wonderful person, so I am supposed to have a healthy marriage with psychologically stable kids. I made sure to get married by 30, so I am not supposed to have fertility issues. (Keep in mind, this list can go on and on). What’s even more painful is that lots of times, what people think their lives are supposed to look like is actually the life they assume Hashem wants them to be living. We do chesed, daven and figure out a way to be an eved Hashem in a way that brings us joy and satisfaction in order to get results along the lines of “Good things (are supposed to) happen to good people. Even more so, these “supposed to’s” tend to get defined as social norms. These norms generally have nothing to do with one’s personal relationship with Hashem, but have more to do with the expectations for the parts of our lives that can be seen by the public eye. Whether it’s what we have seen in our communities or it’s all those years in school preparing us to live the “supposed to be” life, we somehow feel like there is no one to blame when we end up feeling this pressure. Nor should there ever be any guilt in feeling you want something more for your life. Aside from the philosophical aspect of comprehending and navigating your nisayon, the psychological impact of living a life that looks so drastically different than your peers’ can yield to a pain that’s incomprehensible. Often this pain can only be expressed in the most private of circumstances, which only makes the overall situation worse.
In Rav Soleveitchik’s sefer “Before Hashem You Shall be Purified,” p. 29, the Rav exquisitely describes our roles as subjects of Hashem—a nosei, and as objects of Hashem—a nisa. To very simply synopsize, when we are subjects of Hashem, we are actively doing activities to serve Him. On the other hand, when we are in the role of nisa, we are more passive in the relationship. Listening to the shofar is the quintessential time we are all in the role of nisa. As we go about our lives, we’re inevitably going to experience both these roles. When we are faced with the reality of an aspect of our life not looking how it’s supposed to look, we do all we can do as the nosei, but more often than not, we are in the role of nisa. We have shed all our tears and all we can do is be patient for Hashem to do His job and run our lives. But even in this nisa state of mind, we actively work hard at creating a life of simcha and productivity—even if we are totally sure we were not supposed to be living it. Because in fact, no matter how hard it is to admit, we are exactly where we’re supposed to be. May this year be filled with clarity, joy and productivity for us all.
Rachel Zamist lives in Passaic with her daughter, a sophomore in high school.