Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Living the Dream


Operation Inspiration

As much as we try to focus on our own lives and mind our own business, sometimes it can be difficult. Now, I don’t mean to be nosy, but doesn’t it seem that when you look around, you see some people making life look easy?

They are the ones who seem to have it all. They have nice homes and cars, beautiful families, and successful businesses. They’re the ones eating out at fancy restaurants, taking lavish trips to exotic destinations, and they don’t seem to have any cares at all. Of course, this isn’t true, as we know that everyone has their own challenges, but sometimes it’s hard not to wish we could try those lives on for a bit. I mean, these people are “living the dream.”

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Have you ever thought about that phrase? What does it mean to be “living the dream”? Simply put, when you have everything you dream of – the best life has to offer – and all your desires seem to be fulfilled, you’re experiencing what for most people is something they could only achieve in a dream. Hence the expression. But is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Every Shabbos and Yom Tov, we say Shir HaMaalos, B’shuv Hashem es shivas Tzion, hayinu k’cholmim; A song of ascents, when Hashem returned the captives of Tzion, we were like dreamers. It’s a happy song, and we speak of our mouths filling with laughter. But you know what? We’re not happy because we’re dreaming, but because the dream is over.

This chapter of Tehillim is referring to the end of seventy years of Galus in Bavel. When we were returned, we were as those who’d awoken from a dream. It wasn’t a good dream. It was a nightmare. The Bais HaMikdash and Yerushalayim had been destroyed, and we’d been exiled to another country under the reign of a monarchy that wasn’t well-disposed towards us.

Not only that, but when we were there, we slipped in our Avodas Hashem. Rachmona Litzlan, many people took non-Jewish women as wives. (I don’t know if women married non-Jewish men, but even one direction is bad enough.)

When the seventy years were up, and we were able to go back to Eretz Yisrael and rebuild the Bais HaMikdash, that was when we woke up. Then, our mouths were full of laughter because just as one who is having a bad dream and wakes up to find it wasn’t real is relieved, so, too, were we able to “wake up” from the nightmare of the exile.

Some say that though the return after seventy years was prophesied, so we knew the difficult times would come to an end, until they actually did, we could not express our relief and joy. Nevuos are usually given at night when a person is sleeping and when he awakens, he knows what he was told. Similarly, after the seventy years, we finally awoke to see the promise of redemption fulfilled.

The Gemara in Taanis tells us that “That elder,” who was Choni HaMaagal, was always bothered by this posuk. The galus was considered “as a dream” but a dream for seventy years? “Is it possible for a person to sleep for seventy years at one shot?” he wondered.

The story continues that he saw a man planting a carob tree which would take seventy years to grow. Choni fell asleep and a rock grew over him to hide his location from others. When he awoke, the carob tree was full-grown and the man tending it was the grandson of he who planted it. Choni said, “I see I must have slept for seventy years.” (Probably giving rise to Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle who slept a mere twenty years.)

This Gemara has always bothered me. What kind of a question was Choni asking? The posuk didn’t mean a literal, physical slumber. It meant that there was a period of suffering that when it ended, seemed like someone waking from a bad dream. Why did Hashem make him sleep for seventy years? Did Choni really wonder whether it was possible for a person to sleep seventy years?

I think what bothered Choni was that in the course of a lifetime, how could it be that a person never “woke up” and recognized that what appeared to be reality wasn’t real at all? How could one not realize that the situations we find ourselves in are all part of training and preparation to serve Hashem and hopefully enjoy reward in Olam Haba. Both the troubles and the joys of this life are fleeting like a dream that dissipates upon awakening. Could it be that anyone really goes through a whole life fooled into thinking this is what it’s all about?

Indeed, when the seventy years in Bavel were over, few people “woke up” and wanted to go back to Eretz Yisrael. The Galus had become their new reality, and Choni wondered how this could be. How could people not realize they were sleeping?!

I’m not sure how sleeping for seven decades answered his question, but it does shed light on “living the dream.” When you’re making the most of this world, seeking out the choicest foods and the latest hot spots, failing to think about why Hashem gave you these opportunities or whether you should take them, you don’t even realize that you’re asleep! There are people who “live the dream” as if that was living, and they miss the fact that it isn’t real.

I’m sure that doesn’t apply to any of my dear, holy readers, but in case you come across someone like that one day, at least you’ll know what was bothering Choni HaMaagal. Try not to laugh.


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