Let me tell you a really great, old Jewish story.
Over 200 years ago, there lived a Rabbi. He was a great Torah scholar and a Rosh Yeshiva, and he was also a wealthy man. He owned a lumber business and a ship that transported the lumber down the river. It was a very lucrative industry in those distant pre-IKEA days.
One day a rumor reached the yeshiva that, due to heavy rains, the river had burst its banks. The Rabbi’s ship had sunk and the lumber had been lost. That represented the Rabbi’s entire business interest at that time, worth the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The students in the yeshiva understood that the rabbi had not heard the news, but they were not feeling so excited about breaking it too him.
Finally one brave young man volunteered for this difficult job.
He knocked on the door of the Rosh Yeshiva’s study and was invited to enter. Not surprisingly, he found his mentor immersed in a volume of Talmud. The Rabbi indicated for the student to sit down.
“Do you know what I’m learning now?” the Rabbi said. “It’s the gemara which says that we are obligated to make a blessing when we hear bad news, just the same way we do when we hear good news.”
The student’s spirits rose. It seemed that he was getting some Divine assistance in going forward with this difficult conversation. He chose his words carefully.
“You know, Rabbi,” he said, “I’ve never understood that Gemara. How can anyone react the same way to a tragedy as they do to a simcha? It’s not possible.”
“Well, we don’t say the same blessing. The blessing for a simcha is ‘Hatov VeHaMeitiv‘ and the blessing for a loss is ‘HaDayan HaEmes.’ But on a deeper level, the underlying feeling of trust that everything G-d does is good should be the same. The time will come where we may understand that it was all for the best. So we should strive to reach a place where they truly feel gratitude to G-d for everything happens to them, whether good or bad.”
“I still don’t get it,” said the student, anachronistically borrowing expressions from the 21st Century in order to spice up this story. “What does it matter if things will work out for the best later? Right now, if I were to hear bad news, G-d Forbid, I would feel terrible pain. I wouldn’t care that sometime in the future, all will be good. Right now, it’s bad!”
The Rabbi paused, and then leaned closer to the student.
“I will share with you the deeper secret of the good that is disguised as what we call ‘the bad.'”
The student held his breath. Was the Rabbi about to reveal to him one of the greatest secrets of the universe: The answer to why bad things happen to good people? This conundrum plagued even Moshe Rabbenu, the greatest of all Torah teachers.
“Everyone agrees,” began the rabbi, “that light is a good thing. It allows us to see, to learn, to enjoy the world. And yet what happens if there is too much light shining on us? We can’t see, we can’t learn, and instead we are blinded, we feel pain and even physical harm.
“The only difference between what we call ‘good’ and what we call ‘bad’ is the intensity of the blessing raining down on us from the Heavens. The quality of the blessing is the same, and in the long term we benefit much more from bad than from good. And if we truly internalize this, we will get to the point that a tragedy fills us with joy. We know that G-d is showering us with blessing and that it is certainly good.”
“Do you mean that when a person hears really bad news they should be really happy? For example, if they find out that they just lost their business they should dance for joy?” asked the student.
“Absolutely,” answered the rabbi.
“In that case, Rabbi, you can start dancing.”
I got this story from a great book I’m reading right now called GPS for the Soul by Rabbi Nadav Cohen, translated by Rabbi Zalman Nelson. It’s the Tanya explained in simple English. ( Disclaimer: I totally rewrote the story in my own style – I can’t help myself!)
I’m up to page 208, which is really high praise for this book, considering I haven’t read a Jewish philosophy book from cover to cover in a long time (just between you and me).
I think this story, like so many quintessentially Jewish stories, is painfully funny. Even more so if you read the rabbi’s reaction, which I actually left out of my telling.
I’d rather let each of us who runs a business or works hard to make a parnasa feel our own punchline. There is no need to say it out loud.
Knowing the Truth is hard enough. Living the truth is a very rare achievement. But that’s what we’re all aiming for, right?
Wishing all my readers a Happy Shavuos! May we be blessed to have the Torah truly penetrate our hearts and may we live it in all our business dealings, and in every moment of our lives!
PS. So many people wrote to me asking me what happened at the end of the story, so let me just add it here:
The Rabbi faints and then recovers and says: “I see that I also don’t really understand this gemara”