At a conference of neurological science with hundreds of neurologists in attendance, a particular kind of disorder was discussed among all the scientists and doctors. The disorder causes individuals to faint about an hour after waking up in the morning due to oxygen blockage to the brain. After all the data was discussed, the leading expert on the disorder reported that the most effective way to treat the situation is for the individual to sit on the edge of his or her bed for twelve seconds before getting up in the morning. In most cases, that 12-second pause in an upright position before getting up prevents fainting. A kippah wearing neurologist sitting amongst the group got up and shared, “You know it’s interesting, because Judaism also has such a tradition. Upon rising in the morning, Jews start their day by reciting a prayer that contains 12 Hebrew words which are translated as: “Thank You, O’ living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; great is Your faithfulness.”
Even though the day ahead of us may be filled with annoying things—challenges at work, difficulties in our relationships, we still begin our day with words of thanks to God. Because at the end of the day, life is a journey and everything along that journey is something for which we must be grateful for and from which we can learn.
We just finished reading the Book of Bamidbar, and in the very last parsha, Masai, the Torah goes into a detailed walkthrough of the many stops Bnei Yisrael made in the wilderness along their way to Israel. The Torah, which is so careful not to waste words, goes into such detail listing every place to which they traveled and set up camp. First they stopped here, then they stopped there. Truthfully what’s the difference? As long as they got to Israel!
Because every stop represented another development in the spiritual life of Am Yisrael. Similarly, every experience we go through, the good and not so good is part of our development and meant to be learned from. The Torah therefore mentions every place Bnei Yisrael journeyed, even the ones that reminded them of their sins/failings because from every place and from every experience we are supposed to learn another lesson. Rashi says that when the Jews went from Chazerot to Rismah, the place Rismah was so named because of the slander that was spoken by the spies. The word “rismah” he explains is always used in connection with lashon hara, and so Rismah was supposed to remind the Jewish people, and all of us studying the Torah thousands of years later, about the terrible incident of the spies. Although it was a painful moment in our history, it is recalled so we can learn and ultimately grow from even a negative episode.
One of the most powerful examples is the life of Abraham Lincoln. History has been very kind to President Lincoln who is viewed by many as perhaps the greatest president in the history of the United States but how many of us are aware of the incredible failings and setbacks which he faced in his life?
At the age of 9, Lincoln’s mother died, a special hardship for a struggling farm family. Lincoln later lost his modest job in 1831, and in 1833, tried another business which failed. He was defeated for the state legislature in 1832. His fiancée died in 1835, and in 1836, he suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1843, Lincoln failed to achieve his party’s nomination, and in 1849, he sought the federal position of Land Officer, but lost. Lincoln withdrew from the Senate race in 1855 because he didn’t have the requisite majority votes, and in 1858 he failed to win a seat in the senate. Finally in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States.
Would it have been possible for Lincoln to have become the great statesmen he became without having suffered those setbacks? Some believe that it was precisely Lincoln’s ability to learn and grow from each of those experiences that developed him into the great leader he ultimately became.
Recently I was meeting with one of my students, a young woman who lives on the Upper West Side. She just recently ended a relationship with someone who she is now convinced was the wrong guy and was upset at herself for letting the relationship drag on for too long. I of course was sympathetic and acknowledged that he may have been the wrong guy, but I also tried to reassure her that that relationship was not for naught. That like everything else, that relationship was part of her development and an experience from which she could learn and grow.
Failure to learn from every part of our lives will often result in repeating the same mistakes. I shared with the woman that if she felt she had remained in the wrong relationship for too long, it would behoove her to try to understand why that happened. Understandably we want to put our painful experiences behind us, but if we don’t reflect, if we don’t spend time trying to understand why we do what we do, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to self-actualize and we run the risk of repeating the same errors again.
This is precisely why each and every year we go through the Three Weeks, Nine Days and Tisha B’Av: to reflect and ultimately learn from the most difficult and painful parts of our history, because like any individual, if we, as a nation, don’t spend time trying to learn the lessons of our history, we run the risk of repeating those same mistakes again. In particular, the grave mistake of baseless hatred, and the mistake of allowing the kind of distance which developed between us and Hashem which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temples. That is why we have this period on the calendar: so we as a people today can learn and ultimately grow from these events in our history. Perhaps that is what our sages meant when they said, “Anyone who mourns over Jerusalem will merit to see it in its joy” (Taanit 30B). If we spend time reflecting on what happened before, we can better deal with our community today, and in so doing merit to see the Beit Hamikdash and Yerushalayim reborn and rebuilt.
Rabbi Mark N. Wildes is the founder/director of Manhattan Jewish Experience.