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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Idan Scher

We Don't Know

We don’t know. These are the words that would seem to best describe the situation in which we currently find ourselves.

When will this be over? We don’t know. How did this start? We don’t know. Will my job make it through this pandemic? We don’t know. Will there even be a job to come back to when this is all over? We don’t know. Will our children go back to school this year? We don’t know.

It seems as if the only thing we do know right now is that we don’t know… and it is frightening.

It is overwhelming. If any one of us ever worried prior to COVID-19, then our lives probably feel like they have gone completely off the rails right about now. That vital feeling to so many human beings, that feeling of control, seems to have unraveled before our very eyes.

Many of us thrive on feeling like we are in control and knowing that there is order in both our lives and the universe. At times like these, when our powerlessness becomes increasingly evident, it also clearly demonstrates how our previous convictions of being in control were actually fleeting illusions. It is a devastating realization and one that becomes very difficult to handle without falling apart.

When we are finally given the opportunity to confront the reality of our existence, many of us face a crisis of existential proportions.

This has only become truer in recent times.

Every area of technology has advanced so much in the couple of decades. We can now have a face- to-face talk with people thousands of miles away; we have extended the average lifespan by many years, and so on.

We feel more powerful than we ever have before. We’d hardly be to blame if we were to think of ourselves as gods, having “created” human beings in laboratories and engaged in a creation process that had previously been exclusive to the realm of God alone. However, this virus, this miniscule thing that we cannot even see with the naked eye, has driven us mad. It has transformed the world without the use of violence or of political chaos, and we are now vulnerable – every single one of us. Never in our recent history has it been clearer just how little control we have over the circumstances of our lives.

This is a humbling idea. This idea has the ability to simply overwhelm us causing greater anxiety than ever before because we as human beings have a visceral need to feel” in control”; but it also has the opportunity to free us in ways we’ve never felt before.

I was listening to one of the most inspiring personalities of our time, Natan Sharanksy. Born in 1948, at the age of 29 he spent nine years in Soviet prison for Zionist activity. For half of those nine years he was in solitary confinement. And for 405 days he was in what the Soviet’s referred to as a “punishment cell.”

He recently gave five tips from the “expert” on how to deal with isolation. All of the tips were profound. But tip number two is the one I want to share. Natan never knew when he would be released let alone whether he would be released at all. He explained that he never made plans that did not depend on him. He realized that freedom was not in his control so he focused and built his plans only on what was in his control. In his confinement, Natan, a man of immense inner strength discovered and was sustained by this powerful realization.

The situations we find ourselves in are so often not in our control. But we also believe that we as human beings possess free will; the will to choose how to react to any situation we may be in, to deal with any cards that are thrown our way. Not only did God grant us free will, but it is as we use our free will that we define ourselves. That is when human greatness has and will continue to light up the world. It is the relinquishing of control and focusing our energy on all that we actually have the ability to change, that is where the great strength of the human being lies.

Imagine renting a nice wooden cabin in the mountains for your honeymoon. The place is charming. At dawn, however, a woodpecker starts its loud rat‐a‐tat pounding on the roof. The noise is so loud you can’t sleep. It goes on for hours. It happens at dawn the second morning, again on the third morning, and so forth.

What would you do?

Most people would conclude that the woodpecker ruined their honeymoon; the cabin experience was a failure. Well, this woodpecker incident actually happened, to a couple named Gracie and Walter Lantz on their honeymoon. However, instead of deciding that the cabin was a failure, they changed their thinking and asked, “What if it’s a success? What if the woodpecker is an opportunity, a possibility? The only thing left to do is to find the opportunity.” By the time they had returned from their honeymoon they found it. It became a huge commercial success. They created the cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. Walter was the illustrator, Gracie the voice. Many years later, when interviewed on their 50th wedding anniversary, Gracie said, “It was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

If Gracie and Walter had become upset and decided that the cabin vacation was a failure, it would have been a failure. But because they said it was a success, it became a success.

One of the few things that always remain in our control is the way we think: - the way we react to any given situation. Of course, this is easier said than done but it is a truth of human experience and will always make all the difference. The third Lubavitcher Rebbe, known as the Tzemach Tzedek shared the words that have since become a deeply embedded Jewish concept: Tracht Gut Vet Zein Gut. Think good and it will be good.

Taking control of what is in our control and relinquishing that which is not can be an excruciatingly difficult task; but every ounce of energy we put into this sacred endeavor will pay dividends beyond our wildest dreams.


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