What do we do when the Torah tells us a lie? This week’s Torah portion would have us believe that if we play by the rules, if we lead good, righteous lives, we will be blessed. The seasons will fall at the right times, we will have food to eat, peace and security in our land and our homes, strength, and protection from those who seek to harm us, many descendants, and most of all God will be a presence in our lives. But if we don’t play by the rules, if we are deceitful and misguided, we will be cursed. Our lives will be full of misery, disease, and starvation. Those who wish us harm will rule, the skies will be dark and the land hard, and we will experience destruction and exile—we will be abandoned by God.
The thing is, it’s just not true. Any child, any adult knows better. Criminals go free while victims are left to suffer. Those who lie and cheat and steal often prosper while those who work hard and play by the rules scrape to get by. Murderers and conmen live to a ripe old age while a young mother discovers a lump. The Torah’s promise that if we live by the rules we will be safe, secure, and blessed just doesn’t square with what we all know to be a tougher truth. Life has taught us that bad things do happen to good people.
“It’s not what happens to you in life, it’s what you do about it,” says the author and motivational speaker Mitchell. A remarkable philosophy considering the fact that he was badly burned and disfigured in a motorcycle accident, only to be paralyzed from the waist down four years later as a result of an airplane crash. “Before, there were ten thousand things I could do,” he shares, “now there are nine thousand. I could dwell on what I lost, but I prefer to focus on the nine thousand things left.”
Maybe our ancestors weren’t so wrong. After all, they had to know—they had to know because we know there are wealthy people who are lonely and depressed, sick people who are happy and healthy people who are miserable. So perhaps they also knew, that a blessed life does not mean nothing bad will ever happen to us. A blessed life is not necessarily measured by health or wealth, not in what happens to us, but in how we react to it.
Paradoxical as it may seem, Mitchell leads a blessed life; clearly not because of the circumstances that have befallen them, but because of their decisions. Our Torah portion reminds us that the choices we make lead us to a blessed or cursed life, but a blessed life is not without hardship and struggle, a blessed life is not necessarily an easy life. A blessed life is a meaningful life.
This Torah portion is not about why bad things happen to good people, it’s about when bad things happen to good people—it’s about when the unexpected happens, when things don’t go our way.
Our ancestors recognized the importance of leading a blessed life in spite of the challenges and difficulties that come our way, they recognized the importance of leading a blessed life in which goodness really is its own reward.
The Torah had it right all along. Our ancestors had it right all along. They speak to us today across a thousand generations, reminding us of the simple fact that a blessed life has little to do with the hardships we suffer and everything to do with the meaning and the joy that are ours to choose, come what may.