Thursday, September 08, 2005

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.

25 Comments:

Blogger Malka said...

Wow! Another well-written post. Certainly a lot of food for thought in there.. Thanks CJ!

Thu Sep 08, 05:06:00 PM  
Blogger Margaritagirrl said...

What about someone who hurts you deeply, but his intention by inflicting this hurt, was the opposite; that you should not be even more hurt later on?
Does he have to make amends? or is it self-explanatory?
you say, "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."
SO - WHAT DO WE DO??
(wonderful post - by the way)

Thu Sep 08, 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger Shevy said...

Wow, great post.

Thu Sep 08, 06:51:00 PM  
Blogger fsgsf said...

WOW!!! Truly amazing!!! Thanks for sharing this story!!!

peace!

Nj from NJ

Thu Sep 08, 09:07:00 PM  
Blogger Pragmatician said...

Nice story, but what I don't like about these stories is that they give the impression they're going to work for everyone with the same problem, while of course that's not the case.

Everybody hurts and is hurt at some point by others.
Indeed if we forgive we can hope others will forgive us too.

Fri Sep 09, 03:16:00 AM  
Blogger Karl said...

But what about those who do not have ill will to/from others and still dont have children. True davening helps, but the story doesnt help lemafreiah.
We do all need a positive attitude to life and others, which has been proven to help things but there are consequences of that too.

Fri Sep 09, 08:58:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

Karl and Prag,

Obviously the story was not meant as a panacea--which is why I placed the disclaimer before it. It's still a terrific story (I saw him last night by the way, and I got the number wrong. They were married for almost ten years before the kid arrived).

Marg: "SO WHAT DO WE DO??"

Believe me, I wish I knew! What I do know is that forgiveness always helps--by forgiving others, they, and more important, G-d forgives us. At the same time, we have to be ever cognizant of how our actions affect others.

Fri Sep 09, 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

what about the people who have hurt others in relationships, never asked for forgiveness, and don't have problems having children? or is it just that this woman was such a tzadekes that she was judged more harshly?

Fri Sep 09, 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

MH - I think the point of the post is that we can't know the details. Gd has his own reasons. That is why such a miracle happened for this woman, but wouldn't necessarily happen for somebody else, no matter who davens. CJ's wonderful point is that we can never downplay the spiritual effect of every action we make in this world, even while we fail to understand all the connections.

Sun Sep 11, 12:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Also A Chussid said...

ClooJ,

by emphasizing the lack of fondness to these touchy feely stories, wont give you a pass explaining away with that very same touchy feely way, a difficult concept that no logical explanation will ever make sense of it.

i couldn't disagree with you more on this topic. there cannot be a logical explanation why a human being should be punished for causing stress to others unintentional. physics shymsics. it makes no sense why Rav Kahana should be punished for causing stress to Rav Yochenen by a defect that god gave him (assuming he was born with split lips). however the lack of logic was made up with your style of writing and presentation ;o)

Mon Sep 12, 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Semgirl said...

All I can say is Wow!!! This is without a doubt your best post ever.. Absolutely phenomenal.. I love it...

Mon Sep 12, 10:33:00 AM  
Blogger ClooJew said...

"It makes no sense why Rav Kahana should be punished for causing stress to Rav Yochenen by a defect that god gave him"--Chussid

And yet, the Talmud says he was! The point is that we don't control the logic of the world. We don't make the rules--we just have to follow them.

Perhaps it's important to view what happened not as a punishment, per se, but as a consequence, a reaction to what one person felt via another person's actions.

PS: Rebbe Yochanan goes on to resuscitate Rav Kahana from the dead.

Mon Sep 12, 02:46:00 PM  
Blogger Elster said...

Appropos of nothing:

Ocean's 11 was on last night and it made me think of this blog. So thanks to you, even normally wastful tv watching serves as mussar - woo hoo

Mon Sep 12, 03:13:00 PM  
Blogger Mata Hari said...

cloo - kinda think that was an important piece to leave out :)

Mon Sep 12, 04:53:00 PM  
Anonymous Also A Chussid said...

Cloo,

I gather that we don't have a logical (as we humans define logic) explanation to this phenomenon. All you say is that we need to follow it since the Talmud endorses this concept, me personally have a problem with that, logically off course. Don't understand from me that I disagree with the Talmud, The Talmud can be explained logically. It is interesting to see how every Jewish philosophical concept, from the radical Satmer anti Zionist to the to those Lubavitchers who claim that the rabbi is alive and is the Messiah, are all derived from the Talmud. Bottom line its all open to interpretation. The story you quote from the Talmud can be explained logically.

Tue Sep 13, 04:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

especially when it comes to dating and relationships, people should be hyper-vigilant about watching out for the other person's feelings. unfortunately, hurt feelings and disappointments are sometimes unavoidable, but to the extent that we can, we should take care not to be misleading and to behave in a menschlich way. wasting someone's time, emotions and energy is a grievous sin.

Tue Sep 13, 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

CJ,

Here's another story - there was once lots of frum yidden living in a heilege shtetl and they davened a lot and the nazis came and killed most of them. Sorry, they don't wash with me. Am not denigrating the power of prayer, it's the stories that I hate.

Otherwise, good post, maybe link it in with chaos theory?

TRK

Sun Sep 18, 06:46:00 PM  
Blogger Littleredridinghoodie said...

Read and understane Tehilim #105, #106, #107 I think David Hamelech "Chai Vekayam" was trying to prepare us for these days too, history repeats it's self. Prayer is our obligation it is the zuchus Avos that helps y get by, maybe if we connect ourselves to King David (since we have no king today to lead us) in his zechus we will be saved. Leshanna Habah B'Yerushalaim HABENUYA!

Thu Sep 22, 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger Littleredridinghoodie said...

Read and understane Tehilim #105, #106, #107 I think David Hamelech "Chai Vekayam" was trying to prepare us for these days too, history repeats it's self. Prayer is our obligation it is the zuchus Avos that helps y get by, maybe if we connect ourselves to King David (since we have no king today to lead us) in his zechus we will be saved. Leshanna Habah B'Yerushalaim HABENUYA!

Thu Sep 22, 04:01:00 PM  
Blogger dietgarage said...

forgiveness is harder to come by then jewels

Thu Sep 22, 07:40:00 PM  
Blogger Littleredridinghoodie said...

dietrage,
not really, Hashem is the greatest forgiver he gives us sooo many chances every day is a new chance. We just have to see it, believe it, and thank him.

Fri Sep 23, 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Littleredridinghoodie said...

And honey,
Jewels are not that hard to comeby. Charm attracts charms.
;)

Mon Sep 26, 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger ptjew said...

Thanks for writing this. Your like a rabbi.

Thu Oct 27, 01:44:00 PM  
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