OK, I get the point that God is sending me a message. My car was stolen davka ON Yom Kippur, when I volunteered to lead services at a kibbutz in the Galillee. And then the police found the car, on, of all days, Simchat Torah, a day which is one of the most joyous days on the Jewish calendar, when we sing and dance with the Torah as we complete our annual cycle of reading the Torah.
I might try and chalk that up to “free will” and coincidence.
But the car was found full of sheep.
Live, stolen, sheep. (click here to see the pictures).
The thieves were using our car to rustle sheep. In a way I’m grateful – if they were using the cars to run drugs or steal something like computers they could have harmed a lot more other people using my car as a tool. On the other hand – can you imagine what the carpet in the car looks like (smells like) after a bunch of sheep were left in the car for what looks like a few days? I assure you, it smells as bad as you imagine it would.
And not just full of sheep – the reason the cops were able to find the car is it had a broken axle and some body damage. The hapless thieves were driving our American “mommy-van” cross country stealing sheep at a high rate of speed. And smashed it up. I don’t know if they hit a tree or a ditch or what, but they damaged the car, and abandoned it. Full of sheep.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last 16 months have seen the words “only in Israel” appear in this space more than once. I hate to overuse a cliché, but this is truly an “only in Israel” occasion. I certainly never heard of anyone in America having their stolen car recovered loaded with stolen sheep.
Lauri figured this story is so strange it would make a great movie. I agree. What that car has been through – a journey over the ocean, waiting patiently to be retrieved from customs, the run around with getting it licensed, which was like something out of Kafka – including new $1500 headlights and watching the guy make the license plates – to the indignity of being stolen and filled with sheep messing the carpet – would all make a great connecting line for several vignettes.
The scene with the thieves could be hilarious. We could show the thieves trying to steal a sheep on a motor scooter and deciding they needed to upgrade to something more spacious. Bouncing across a field loaded with sheep, yelling at the sheep to stay out of the way of the driver.
All joking aside, I’m still trying to figure out the theological implications of this strange story.
When Yom Kippur was over, and I got to thinking about the significance of my car being stolen on Yom Kippur, my reaction was not to blame God, but rather to chalk it up as an artifact of free will. The scoundrels who stole a car on Yom Kippur, I figured, were not somehow fulfilling God’s will, but rather were exercising – in a particularly odious fashion – the free will that the Creator endowed them with.
But I was just reading some stories of the Baal Shem Tov, the Besht, and there was one that seemed very much on point. The Besht decided to visit the Holy Land: he was convinced that if he and a certain tzadik living in Jerusalem were together, they could bring the Messiah. He ignored omens that he shouldn’t go, and left his home with his daughter and an assistant for the journey to the Israel. Along the way he got another powerful sign of Heavenly displeasure: his learning fled from him. He ignored this omen as well. Along the way all their money was stolen and they were left abandoned on some island; the Besht understood this as a message, but he wasn’t going to be deterred. They got back on their way, and when a great storm hit the boat and swept his daughter overboard, it was then he gave up, realizing he couldn’t fight God’s will: he promised to give up and go back home if God would only give his daughter back. His daughter was saved, the seas calmed down, and he went home; the tzadik he wanted to meet passed away three months later.
Now I could see reading the storm as Divine displeasure, but the Besht also saw the bandits who robbed him as part of a Divine message to him—he wasn’t content to say it was just the bandits exercising their free will, because in the Chasidic world view, everything comes from God, good and bad alike. And to some degree I would agree; after all, the bandits are also “powered by God” and if God really didn’t want them doing what they had started doing, He could intervene.
So if I were to read the theft of the car on YK as a divine message, how do I interpret it? What was the message?
I think it was a test. When Lauri came in and asked “did you move the car” just as I was about to lead the morning Amidah on Yom Kippur, it was a test to see if I would become more focused on my material needs than on my spiritual needs and the spiritual needs of the congregation. I passed the test – I shrugged and went back to my prayers, and there was really no discernible effect on my kavannah (focus). If the car was gone, there was nothing I could do about it, and certainly not on Yom Kippur, so I just kept praying.
It was really hard work – nothing to do with the car, just leading all those services, and feeling responsible for the group that was there. I’m not a great singer, I’m not trained as hazzan, and despite my efforts at studying and practicing ahead of time, I know the melody wasn’t always perfect, and neither was my Torah reading. But there were a few peak moments in there, when I did feel connected to God, when I really did pour my heart out to God, and I was really and truly praying. My imperfections helped me have the contrite spirit that the chasids assure us is what is really pleasing to God.
So when I found out the car was recovered on Simchat Torah, it made it seem as if the test had a specific time limit. God wanted to know how I would deal with the loss of my car – which was far and away my family’s biggest non-financial asset – between Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Simchat Torah, the Day of Rejoicing.
I was not upset by the loss of the car (well, not TOO upset, anyway…). Can I describe it as faith in God without seeming guilty of excessive pride? I knew somehow I would find a way to meet my transportation needs. I have a job, I have options. Losing the car was going to be somewhat inconvenient and would involve some expense, but it wasn’t going to change my life.
I wish when the car was stolen I could have been like Rabbi Akiva and said “kol d’avid rachmanah l’tav,” “all that the Compassionate One does is for the good.” Even after he had his lamp broken, his donkey ran away, and he was turned away from the inn, Rabbi Akiva was able to say “all that the Compassionate One does is for the good.” Or I wish I could have been like “Nachum gam zu” who would always say “gaz zu l’tovah,” “this too is for the best,” no matter what happened. It’s still very difficult for me to see the hand of Providence in disasters, and to have faith that everything is God’s will and somehow this is also for the best. And this was just a car; God forbid something bad happened to someone I loved, it would be even harder to see that as ‘also for the best.’ But I was at least able to accept it with equanimity, and if I couldn’t quite say “it’s also for the best,” at least I could say “it could have been worse.”
As much as I believe in free will, it seems very unlikely that of all the cars at the kibbutz, the thief picked the rabbi’s car; and they stole it davka on Yom Kippur, and it was returned davka on Simchat Torah—full of sheep. Very strange set of coincidences if it was just coincidence.
When Yakov was tested by wrestling with the angel, he prevailed, but was injured in the process. Something like that happened here as well; we got the car back, but it was damaged in the process. So I may have passed the test, but I was also damaged in the process. But at least unlike Yakov, my damage was only financial and is nothing we can’t recover from.
Actually, now that I think about it, the story about the Besht says he accepted God’s will and went home – but it does not say he was happy about it, or even that he said “gam zu l’tovah.” Maybe that’s part of our free will as well; we ultimately may have to accept God’s will, but we don’t have to be happy about it!
Accepting the idea of Divine Providence doesn’t necessarily mean simply accepting all bad things without complaint or flinching – after all, the Besht would pray fervently to get Divine decrees changed in order to avert individual or communal suffering.
There are definitely times in my life when I have felt the hand of Divine Providence. Yet I’m still likelier to attribute Divine Providence to positive things in my life than to negative ones. But maybe that’s not bad – after all, I’m giving God credit for the good stuff, but letting Him off the hook for the bad stuff. Maybe when my time comes to be judged I’ll be able to point that out and say God should reciprocate, and give me credit for the good, but overlook the bad!