For the week ending 24 April 2010 / 9 Iyyar 5770

Sing in the Blues

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Benji

Dear Rabbi,

When things are going well for me, I feel happy and close to G-d. When things aren’t going so well, I don’t feel as close to G-d and that bothers me. I know that everything, good or bad comes from G-d for our own good. But I’m having trouble internalizing or living up to this ideal. Can you give me some pointers on how to practically incorporate this into my life?

Dear Benji,

The feelings you have are perfectly natural and anyone who thinks about their service of G-d is troubled at one time or another in one way or another with this question. The fact that you are not only aware of, but also bothered by, this problem shows you’re on the right spiritual track and that in itself is something to be happy about.

Of course, when all is well, it’s easy to be “happy” with G-d. However, although we should certainly be thankful of the good G-d gives, feeling close to G-d at those times is not necessarily because we’re actually closer to G-d but because we’re closer to our self-centered selves. When this is so, being “happy” is not really serving G-d but rather serving ourselves.

But how can one know if his happiness and joy during the good times is serving G-d rather than self-serving?

One way to know is by how one feels during the bad times.

I don’t mean to say that one must be completely happy at those times, because most people can’t achieve and maintain that type of clarity. But one must strive to be simultaneously happy with his realization that G-d does all for the best, and often the “bad” times are for our good and in fact bring us closer to G-d in ways the “good” times can’t. One who is able to do this is truly serving G-d in both situations and will reap the rewards in true closeness to G-d.

This idea is hinted at in a teaching I once heard. The verse states “those who plant in tears, in joyous song will reap” (Psalms 126). The obvious meaning of the verse is that those who expend effort and endure hardship for a purpose will eventually reap the fruits of their labor. However, if this was the only intended meaning, the verse should have said simply, “those who plant in tears will reap in song”. The particular word order as stated in the verse therefore suggests a parallel reading – namely: “those who plant in tears in joyous song – they will reap”. Meaning, those who serve G-d while crying by also singing His praise (hazorim b’dima b’rina), they will truly harvest closeness to G-d (yiktzoru).

The following analogy that expresses the closeness of G-d even in hard times (or more accurately, especially in hard times) is also worth keeping in mind when you feel things aren’t going so well:

A man who suffered significantly in his life came before the Heavenly court after his passing and was given a vision of his life. He found himself overlooking a long sandy beach along the seashore. Along the length of the shore he saw footprints stretching into the distance – at some places there were two sets of prints; at some only one. G-d asked him, “How do you perceive the vision?” The man replied, “Well G-d, it seems quite obvious. The places with two sets of footprints represent the good times in my life when you were walking with me; the places with only one set are the bad times where I went it alone.” G-d replied, “True, the two sets are the good times when we walked together. But the one set is when I was carrying you in my arms!”

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