For the week ending 27 June 2009 / 4 Tammuz 5769

Free Fall Back

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Anthony

Dear Rabbi,

I want you to know that I really enjoy your column and have come to appreciate it even more of late. I’ll tell you why. I am currently recovering from a serious fall and have been lying on my back in bed for six weeks. I have had a lot of time to read your articles and other material on the web to keep me busy. This has been for me a great source of interest and inspiration, but it has also caused me to ask a lot of questions. Until my fall, I was so busy “accomplishing” in life that I never really thought about life. I mean, the value of life in general, and the direction of my life and my goals. Now I’m wondering, since I’m getting better and will soon get back to “accomplishing”, whether I should go back to that right away, or whether I should take time out to explore more about life from our Jewish heritage. I guess my question is, as a rabbi, can you tell if there might be a sign from Above that this is what I should do?

Dear Anthony,

First of all, let me wish you a complete and speedy recovery. If you’ve been laid up for so long, you must have had a bad fall, and the fact that you’re alive and getting well is something to be very thankful for. I presume that’s part of what’s sparked your interest in G-d and Judaism.

Now regarding your fall, or the time out which it afforded you to rethink things, it is certainly possible that this is a sign from G-d. Of course these things happen, and often it’s because of our or other’s carelessness or negligence. But even in these cases, and certainly in cases where things were beyond our “control”, the Jewish take is that, ultimately, everything is from G-d, and this is G-d’s way of communicating with us if we would just be sensitive enough to listen.

The problem is that there is just too much competing noise in most people’s lives to hear the subtle messages coming from G-d. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it might be very important to Him that a particular person hears a particular message until G-d changes His whisper to a shout. These extreme cases are naturally alarming. They wake us from our daydreaming through life, causing us to come to terms with reality. We can slip back into the daydream of passivity, or actively capitalize on this new orientation. Each person has to follow the truth in his own heart.

What I find amazing is the following: Not only is our column of more interest to you of late, your question is of more interest to me as of late. I’ll explain why, and perhaps this should be seen as a sign as well. In the last six weeks, I have talked to two different people who, upon free falling on their backs, rebounded to Judaism.

In one case, a young man totally estranged to traditional Judaism was studying in our yeshiva short-term with the intention of returning to America and a host of interesting, philanthropic and valuable, but distinctly non-Jewish, opportunities and responsibilities. His experience here was so valuable, though, that he decided to stay on for another month – but too much rested on his shoulders, he felt, to stay any longer than that. On the day he was originally scheduled to leave, he literally fell off a cliff in a deadly freefall into a deep gorge. While falling, he recalled that for his whole life he felt his life was in his own hands, but now he was totally helpless and in the hands of something else. He remembered thinking before hitting rock bottom that this was G-d’s sign that He wanted him to stay. Miraculously, he lived and “merely” broke his back. He had to be airlifted out of the gorge on a stretcher by military helicopter. During the weeks of painful recuperation, when he was totally dependent on others and while things back home were “somehow” taken care of without him, he decided to stay in yeshiva on an open ticket.

In the other instance, a man who was quite successful in business and had everything he wanted — a lovely wife, cars, a beautiful large house and an enjoyable lifestyle — started noticing that this was not fulfilling. And worse, he started suffering mishaps that grew in intensity including the unfortunate loss of his wife to sickness and culminated in his own falling from a window. During his very long and painful recovery, he started to question the true value in life and the priorities he had set. He “stumbled” upon Jewish content on the web and found it very meaningful and comforting. One day, in excruciating pain from which medications offered little relief, he experienced bouts of fainting. Despite never having prayed in his life, he found himself pleading with G-d for respite from the pain. When he fainted the last time, he saw a figure of a pious old man appear before him in his dream. The figure sweetly smiled at him, gazed upon him with loving eyes and then faded into darkness, leaving him with the impression that this was a departed, saintly relative. When he awoke, he started feeling better until gradually the pains he had been suffering for so long disappeared. When he told his family of the figure and impression, it came out that his great-grandfather was a holy rabbi in Jerusalem of old. He took this as a sign that all that had happened was G-d’s beckoning him to return to his Jewish roots, and when he fully recuperated he came to find a yeshiva in Jerusalem.

So Anthony, given the circumstances, your situation being the third I’ve heard in six weeks of people rebounding from serious falls back to Judaism, I think it’s safe to view your thoughts as a sign.

So allow me to modify my blessing: May you have a complete and speedy recovery and return.

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