Kudos to The Jewish Press. It is the newspaper that I grew up with, and wherever I travel in America people comment on my monthly column, indicating to me that this cherished newspaper is still beloved across the country. And yet, as the lyrics go, “The times they are a-changin.’ ”
Show me a newspaper that doesn’t change with change, and I’ll show you a newspaper perfect for wrapping fish. The Jewish Press has made great and important changes in recent months. Now it’s my column’s turn: “Chodesh Tov” will also undergo some revision. First, it has a new name, and second, a new focus. I am proud to report that the author will remain constant. (Additionally, the column will remain a monthly.)
The Jewish Press has requested that I focus my articles on stories. (Hmmm… I wonder what made them go in that direction!) For better or for worse, my name is often identified with stories, due perhaps to a quirk of fate. Like the medical columnist named Dr. Healy or the electrician Mr. Shocken, it is possible that my profession chose me, instead of the other way around. (For the record, I was born in Europe, and there “Teller” has a different meaning.)
So, after writing a column here for two decades, it is quite a blessing to be given a fresh start. Let me utilize this opportunity to lay down a very important principle about Jews and stories, one that my colleague Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky has dubbed “The Streets of Life.” The principle is that nothing is capricious or whimsical. There is a reason for what occurs to us, be it good or bad, and this is known as hashgacha pratis. G-d supervises our individual lives, orchestrating events while not tampering with our free choice.
A seeming “coincidence” that occurs on our way to work is divinely determined. We usually do not perceive why the detour or catastrophe is for our benefit, as we are not gifted with the divine, super-peripheral vision to be able to see the entire picture. Imagine a large wall covered over with cardboard and only one square inch cut open, revealing a few aqua-colored tile chips. Even with this tiny portal, the mind cannot comprehend or envision the enormous mural composed of millions of colored tiles.
The guiding principle is for us to believe that no matter what occurs, it is ultimately for our benefit. There is always a reason why something happens. This is the way we are to approach the stories that we encounter and the events of our own lives. It is Judaism 101.
After Avraham banishes Hagar (at Sarah’s urging) to the wilderness (Bereishis 21:15), the verse tells us “that she set off and strayed in the desert of Beer Sheva.” Rashi comments “that she returned to the idolatrous practices of her father’s home.” Prima facie this seems rather harsh to say about a poor woman who was just expelled without notice to an arid, barren region.
One Shabbos morning in Mexico City, I was walking with Rabbi Kram from Israel (forgive me; I do not remember his first name or which city he is from) and he offered the following story to explain this perplexing Rashi.
A rabbi was waiting in the Beer Sheva Central Bus Station to catch a bus to Tel Aviv, when he suddenly realized that the time to daven mincha was quickly lapsing. He asked a boy passing by if he could point out to him the closest synagogue. The rabbi followed the boy’s directions and entered a nearby synagogue. No sooner had he entered, a Russian immigrant approached him and questioned, “Is it true that a baby boy must be circumcised on the eighth day?”
“Of course,” countered the rabbi, leaving no room for ambivalence. “Well,” responded the immigrant, “This is my son’s eighth day – what should I do? It’s getting late!”
“It just so happens,” the rabbi replied, all incredulity, “that I happen to be a mohel, but I do not have any utensils with me.”
“No problem,” the father assured. “I made up with a mohel to perform the circumcision, but he is also an immigrant and he went to the Ministry of Absorption this morning and still has not returned. Everything you need is here.”
The Tel Aviv-bound rabbi performed the circumcision just in time on the eighth day as the Torah requires. With pause he reflected on the recent series of events. He had thought he was simply going to daven mincha when in fact, G-d had additional plans in mind for him.
Alas, Hagar ended up in the wilderness and strayed, assuming there was no purpose in her being where she had been placed. If that was her perspective, it is a sign that had reverted to her former ways; a Jew with the proper outlook would never arrive at the same conclusion.
In the course of my next columns, b’ezras Hashem, I shall be providing some more illustrations of this principle.