Truth and Consequences
I’m not the biggest fan of what my family likes to call “Hanoch Teller” stories—those feel-good tales that always end happily ever after. My aunt, in a moment of levity, once wondered aloud about the man who, after missing his flight in order to daven Minchah with a minyan, catches the next plane—which promptly crashes. Where’s his story?
Keeping that caveat in mind, what follows is a bona fide Hanoch Teller story.
A couple I know was having difficulty getting pregnant. Over the course of their eight-year marriage, they tried every fertility therapy imaginable, they sought the counsel and blessings of great rabbis and scholars—but to no avail. They were on the verge of resigning themselves to being childless, accepting that perhaps parenting was a blessing that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, was not going to bestow upon them.
Then one day, my friend’s brother had a brainstorm. He thought of somebody whom he was confident could help. He approached this person and asked him to pray for his brother and sister-in-law. The person accepted the brother’s plea and pray he did. One month later, she was pregnant.
Who was this great rabbi who blessed the couple?, you ask. What was the name of this holy mystic whose prayers pierced the Heavenly gates? You probably never heard of him. Because, actually, he isn’t a great rabbi or a holy mystic. He’s just a regular person like you and me. Well, almost regular. You see, he had once been engaged to the woman for whom he prayed.
In the immortal words of Dave Barry: I am not making this up.
When my friend’s brother tracked him down, he found this young man married with children of his own. No, he said, he bore no anger toward his former fiancé. He harbored no ill will toward her.
But that didn’t satisfy the brother. He reiterated the importance of his mission. The life of a family was at stake, children were being withheld from this couple. Could he, the former fiancé, acknowledge that perhaps deep down there remained some lingering disappointment, traces of anger, resentment, pain? Could he concede these subconscious emotions and release them? Could he wholeheartedly forgive the person who caused them? Could he then pray for her?
He could. He did. He forgave. He prayed.
All our actions have consequences. In the physical world, if you drop an egg, it will fall, break, and leave a mess—regardless of your intention. Every day the paper has a story about a traffic “accident.” Someone got hurt or killed by someone else who wasn’t paying attention. Did the driver intend for the accident to happen? It doesn’t matter. In the physical world, actions—whether done maliciously or absentmindedly—have reactions.
So, too, the “physics” of interpersonal relationships dictate that our behavior will always leave an impression.
The Talmud tells the story of a Sage named Rebbe Yochanan, whose eyebrows were so long that they covered his eyes. He once met up with another Sage, Rav Kahana, whose lip was split in such a way that he looked like he was smirking. Rebbe Yochanan thought that Rav Kahana was smirking at his eyebrows, and became dispirited. Immediately, Rav Kahana died.
It goes without saying that Rav Kahana was not trying to hurt Rebbe Yochanan’s feelings. Nevertheless, the pain he felt, however inadvertent, was real. And Rebbe Yochanan was a Torah giant of such stature that his pain produced punishment. Even Rav Kahana’s similar stature as a giant of Torah was not enough to mitigate the consequences. If anything it amplified them, for the greater a person is, the more he is held liable.
But wait. There’s more.
Sometimes even doing the right thing and having a positive effect, causes negative fallout. The final verse in the Book of Esther describes the prophet Mordechai, who had just saved the Jewish people from annihilation, as “liked by most of his bretheren.” Most? Not all? Rashi explains that some of his colleagues distanced themselves from him because his involvement in politics had interfered with his Torah scholarship.
Even a man as great as Mordechai, who saved the Jewish nation, whose name lives on to this day, was, in some respects, demoted for his heroic behavior. Does that mean that he shouldn’t have acted as he did? Of course not. But the fact remained: while he was busy rescuing the Jews, he wasn’t keeping up with his studies.
Actions—even necessary ones—have consequences, too.
Where do we go from here? Well, for one thing, we must be ever vigilant about the negative effects—miniscule though they may be—that our behavior causes. Whether it’s cutting someone off in traffic or forgetting to wish a neighbor good morning. But even when we do a good thing, a necessary thing, which requires a little pain—disciplining children, rebuking a friend—we must realize that unintended consequences lurk.
After the “Kol Nidrei” service on Yom Kippur eve, there is a prayer that follows called “Tefillah Zakah.” In it, we forgive everyone who caused us harm, however slight, however unintentional, and even with good intentions in mind. Let’s get a head start on the upcoming Days of Awe and begin pardoning today.