Well, the world has been waiting for an end to 2020 and it’s finally upon us. Most people are ready to say good riddance to this year which has been filled with pain, suffering, death, anarchy, confinement, lockdowns, violence, looting, and more. Enough is enough, folks. We never want to hear the C word again. Can we just agree that 2020 was a bad year?
Not so fast. You see, to classify 2020 as a “bad” year would be to miss the point of all we’ve been through. No, I won’t try to explain that the virus hit because we didn’t set up “Save the Bat!” campaigns or because we didn’t smile at nurses. I won’t try to discuss why we’ve been kept out of shul and had weddings transformed from gala affairs to maximum-security confidential meetings. I leave that to the people who are big enough (and foolish enough) to assume they have insider information on Hashem’s reason for everything. To me, the main message of this year has been, “Whatever you think you know, know that you don’t.”
But again, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to speak to the people who are looking in the rearview mirror and shocked at how much bad this year has brought. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. None other than the chosen of the patriarchs, Yaakov Avinu, made this mistake. When he appeared to Pharaoh (we read this last week) he looked so ancient that Pharaoh asked him his age. Yaakov responded, “I’m only 130, but my days have been few and bad…” As we all know, he was punished for this with his life being shortened by 33 years.
R’ Henoch Lebowitz z”l comments on this. He says that had Yaakov said, “I look old because I’ve had a lot of difficulties in my life,” that would have been alright. The problem was that Yaakov called his days, “few and bad.” The Midrash (quoted in the Daas Zekainim) tells us that Hashem responded to him at that moment “I saved you from Esav and Lavan, I reunited you with Dina, I have brought you to Yosef, and you say your years were bad? For that it will be as you say and I will shorten your life.”
Let’s look at what Hashem said. Did He say, “I brought you back to your father’s house, and I gave you four wives and thirteen children?” Did He say, “I made you wealthy and prosperous?” No. Hashem pointed to the troubles Yaakov had been through and said, “I saved you from those situations.” What was going on here? Hashem put him in the painful or dangerous situations, so what’s the big deal that He saved Yaakov from them?
[Please pause for a moment to let the magnitude of that question sink in. Thinking about it? OK, Let’s proceed.]
I’d like to explain by way of an anecdote. In a single year in my family, about twenty years ago, one brother-in-law needed heart surgery. My mother got cancer. My father got cancer. I got skin cancer. Another brother-in-law had thyroid cancer, and there were several more health scares. (Our mezuzos were fine, thank you very much.) At the end of the year, someone said, “Wow, what a horrible year you had!”
I responded, “Are you kidding? It was a great year; because we’re all still here!” Hashem had brought us into trouble and then taken us out. It shows His love and devotion to us that He saved us from these perilous situations. He put us in them to show us that no matter what, He would not leave us behind.
That’s what He was saying to Yaakov Avinu. “You call those years bad? After I’ve saved you from those troubles, you should be looking back and thanking Me! Perhaps in the midst of them you may have had a hard time dealing with them, but when I rescued you, you should have breathed a sigh of relief and praised Me.” By focusing on the wrong thing, Yaakov missed an opportunity.
I noticed something last Shabbos. In Hallel HaGadol (Tehillim 136, recited as part of Pesukei D’Zimra) we praise Hashem for different aspects of saving us from the Egyptians who wished to kill us, as well as from enemies like Sichon and Og. We end each line with “Ki L’olam Chasdo,” for Hashem’s kindness and closeness are forever. But why is this called Hallel HaGadol, the “Great” Hallel?
My tenth grade Rebbi, R’ Yechezkel Munk Shlit”a, told us it’s because of the penultimate line, “He gives bread for all flesh, for His kindness is forever.” After all the violence and calamity preceding it, isn’t this rather anti-climactic? I think not.
Only when we’ve gone through hardships and come out safely, even if a bit battered and bruised, can we begin to appreciate how Hashem was with us in the good times too. Hashem is great and kind because he never forgets about a single creature. When we have troubles, we may feel He has forgotten about us, but when we are saved, we realize He never would.
As we bid farewell to 2020, let us focus on the salvations we experienced and realize what a “good” year it actually was.
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