Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz – Two Sides to the Story


Operation Inspiration

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and I intend to test that theory out right now. You see, I have to write close to a thousand words, and I’m going to do it about a picture I have in my mind. It’s a mental snapshot of a scene I took note of one day, where the sheer incongruity of the moment struck me with such force that I decided I had to write about it.

In Monsey, where I live, there is a “main drag” called Route 306, a street that runs north and south through many of the Jewish communities, similar to Bathurst Street in Toronto. The problem is that Route 306 is a single lane in each direction for much of its length, with the occasional widened part for a turning lane. If traffic builds up, it can get backed up pretty far.

One morning, as I was heading north, back to where I live, I noticed a long backup of cars heading southbound. They were backed up nearly half a mile, and I could imagine the tension of those people who had to get to work or school but had to wait for the lights to change, people to move, etc. Then I turned my gaze back towards the right lane, the one I was in, heading northward.

There were almost no cars ahead of me. I looked back to the row of cars idling in anticipation, and noted that behind them was a bustling neighborhood of homes. On my side, there were no homes. There was a grassy hill and the headstones of a cemetery. Perched on the gentle green slope stood a single deer, who seemed to be eyeing the line of cars with wonder, unaware of the stories each vehicle contained. He was at peace with nature; in no hurry; blithely munching on the vegetation beneath his feet, above the feet of those who no longer trod this earth.

I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what I took note of. It was more of a general feeling, one that I’m exploring now, together with you. It was the juxtaposition of so many people with places to go, and the resting place of people who were already where they were going. They weren’t running somewhere, they just “were,” and that deer was part of the calm, serene nature of the moment.

In that instant, I think I got an echo of “the other side.” The souls that aren’t busy running to and fro; who may be looking in astonishment at those who are. They might consider with amusement the futility of people focusing their energies on the temporary existence of this life instead of working on the long game, and building their eternal portfolios.

I’m reminded of a story in Chovos HaLevavos about a fellow who was traveling for business to some far-off land inhabited by savages. They worshiped various gods and he laughed. They asked, “Which god do you serve?” He said, “I serve G-d who created Heaven and Earth, who sustains all life and is all-powerful.” The savage chieftain told him, “Your actions contradict your words. Can’t your G-d support you where you live? Why are you here so far from home to make your livelihood?”

The man was taken aback as he recognized the truth of these words. He returned home and, as the Chovos HaLevavos tells us, he became a ‘porush,’ separated, from every chasing after parnasa again. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t involved in business, only that he didn’t rush around trying to make a living. He understood that Hashem will take care of us and it wasn’t his exertions that would determine his fortunes.

That’s what I felt when I saw the scene. I saw the hustle and bustle of people actively engaged in this world, (though of course, they may have been on their way to help someone, learn Torah, do chesed, etc.) and got a glimpse of the other side, when all the distractions and busy-ness of this world are out of context. It grounded me and made me feel like that fellow who realized the folly of his ways in chasing his livelihood.

It refreshed me and helped me to refocus my attention and be able to think about what’s really important and where we should be rushing. Certainly, this life is where we are to take action and accomplish, because on the other side we can’t do that. The question is where we’re trying to get.

If we’re rushing to do good things and fulfill mitzvos, then even the moments behind the wheel when we seem to be sitting still, are moments when we’re climbing. If we’re working with the intent to serve Hashem in everything we do, then we’re achieving even when the brake lights in front of us are blazing red.

The trick, I think, is to keep ourselves mindful of the other side, to constantly straddle the fence with an eye in each direction, knowing which way we want to go. Some of us may even share the perspective of the deer, which is peacefully existing, as Hashem intended, without getting caught up in the drama. That’s how I think this scene affected me, and I hope you can envision it in your mind’s eye and benefit as I did. And those thousand words? We sure came pretty close. Now the rest of the story is yours to write.





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