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Understanding Life Settings

by Rabbi Ben Zion Shafier - TheShmuz.com

Rebbe Elazar bar Padas was one of the greatest Torah sages of his time. He was known as the “teacher in Israel.” To his home came all questions large and small, to his address came all issues communal and personal.  Yet despite the fact that he was a great individual, he led a very difficult life — suffering poverty, illness, and pain.


He was so poor that he often went without food. The Gemarah gives us an example of a day in his life. One time, after undergoing a medical procedure, he returned home to a bare cupboard. He literally had nothing to eat. The only thing he was able to find was a clove of garlic. He bit into it and then passed out from malnourishment.


The word quickly spread that the great Rebbe Elazar bar Padas was unconscious. The Rabbis gathered in his house and waited. While he was in that state, they watched as first he cried, then he laughed, and then a beam of light emanated from his forehead.


When he awoke, the Sages asked him, “What was the meaning of all this: the crying, the laughing, the beam of light?”


Rebbe Elazar bar Padas answered, “While I was unconscious, HASHEM came to visit me. I asked Him, ‘How long will my suffering continue in this world?’


“HASHEM said to me, ‘Elazar, my son, do you wish for Me to turn back the world to the first moment of Creation and maybe you will be born into a time of sustenance?’


“I said to HASHEM, ‘All of that and maybe I will be born into a time of sustenance?’ Then I asked, ‘Did I, at least, live half of my life? ”


HASHEM answered, “Yes, you already lived more than half of your life.” 


“In that case,” I said, “return me to my current life.”


HASHEM said, “The reward that you will receive in the World to Come is an estate so wide and so vast that there will be thirteen rivers running through it.” (Tannis 25a)

Putting This Into Perspective


There is much for us to learn from this incident. Let’s begin with a question.


Rebbe Elazar bar Padas was a great man. He was an enormous Torah scholar, one of the leaders of his generation, a man righteously following the ways of HASHEM. By all accounts he was a tzaddik .  Yet he was suffering, and not lightly – he was racked by poverty, pain, and illness. His plight was so difficult that when HASHEM Himself came to visit him, the very first thing he said to HASHEM was, “How long will my suffering continue in this world?”


Wouldn’t you imagine that HASHEM’s response would be, “OK, you’re a good man. You have done well. I will take care of you.”


Not only wasn’t that the response, HASHEM said something rather puzzling, “Do you want Me to turn the world back to the moment of Creation and maybe you will be born into a time of sustenance?”


Rebbe Elazar Bar Padas wasn’t asking for luxuries. He wasn’t asking for riches and honor. He was asking for his basic needs, nothing more. Why didn’t HASHEM just say, “You have suffered enough. I will ease your plight.”


To better understand this event, let’s use a parable.

Actors on the Stage


Imagine that a famous actor gets a call from his agent.


“Listen, Jack, we just got a great offer. Tons of money, an all cash deal. You get the starring role, playing next to the greatest co-stars in the industry. But the best part of it is the plot; it’s great. The story line really clicks. It’s a guaranteed Tony. I’m sending the script over this morning. I want you to just sign off on the deal.”


After reading the script, the actor calls back his agent.


“Bob, forget it. No deal.”


“What do mean?”


“I mean it’s no way. I won’t do it.”


“Jack, what is it? Is it the story line?”


“No, the story is fine.”


“Is it the other actors?”


“No, they’re fine too.”


“So Jack, what is it?”


“What is it? Don’t you get it? The guy you want me to play is penniless and not too bright either. More than that, he’s a jerk! I can’t stand anyone seeing me that way.”


“But, Jack, that’s only the part you’d be playing. It’s not you.”


“Bob, forget it, playing this part means everyone – the whole world – is going to see me as a down and out loser. I can’t stand the embarrassment. Don’t even ask me again, I’m not doing it.”


And the actor hangs up the phone.

Judging an Actor


Obviously, this conversation never took place. Because any actor, as well as any person going to the theater, understands that those people up there on the stage are playing their parts. They aren’t judged by how wealthy or poor they are in the production. They aren’t rated by whether their role portrays a life of success or failure.


            There is one criterion for judging an actor: how well he played his part. If his role is to play the part of an idiot savant and he does it convincingly, he will win accolades and praise. If his role is to be the most successful man in the world and he isn’t real, the critics will rip him to shreds. He is there for one purpose — to play his role. He is given a certain backdrop and a certain set of circumstances. The character was born in this time period, has this type of personality, and has this amount of intelligence and charisma. Now go out there and play the part!

We, Too, Will Be Judged


This is an apt parable to life. Each person was given a specific set of circumstances and a particular set of abilities. The backdrop is set and we are given a role to play. Born into a particular time period, to a particular family, given a very exact set of parameters. You will be so tall, so intelligent, have so much of this talent and so much of that one. Now, go out there and do it! Live your life, ford those streams, cross those rivers, and sail those seas!


At the end of your days, you will be judged. But you won’t be compared to me or to anyone else. You will be measured against the most demanding yardstick imaginable — you. Based on your potential, based on your G-d given abilities, how much did you achieve?


            Whether you are smarter or richer or more talented than the next person is irrelevant. The only issue is: how much did you accomplish compared to what you were capable of?


All of the things that we put such emphasis on — money, honor, and talent — are all stage settings. They are props to be used; they allow us to play our part. But in the end we aren’t judged by the part we played. When we leave this earth, they don’t ask us, “How much money did HASHEM give you? How smart did HASHEM make you?” The questions are far more penetrating and demanding. “How far did you go with what you were given?


There is no objective standard or single yardstick that everyone is measured against, and the measure of man’s success isn’t in absolute terms. The system is far more exacting. It is based on your talents and strengths, your abilities and capacities. The only question they ask is how much of your potential did you reach? 80%? %? %? w much of you did you become?

HASHEM, Give Me a 180 IQ”


We tend to take far too much credit for that which was given to us, and too much blame for what wasn’t. No one woke up one morning and said, “HASHEM, I think you should create me with a 180 IQ… No, make that an 80 IQ.” “HASHEM, I think I should be 6’2”, strapping and strong. No, on second thought, I would rather be 5’4,” puny and weak.”


Our life setting has been chosen for us, and we have no input in the process. Smart or dumb, attractive or ordinary, talented or not. These are the backdrops against which we live our lives, the scenery and landscape that surrounds us. But they don’t define us.  


Just as our external conditions that are set, so too is much of our inner makeup. Our temperament has been hard-wired into us at birth. Studies show that whether a child is bold or timid, extroverted or shy, can be determined at twenty-two months of age. It is simply the nature they are born with. 


Granted, a person can work on himself. He can learn to overcome weaknesses and change the level of some of his personality traits. But each individual was given a certain predisposition and tendencies at birth. These are part of the stage settings of his life. He was born into a role, and this is the backdrop against which he plays.


Additionally, each individual is born into an exact generation, into a given family, in a specific birth order, with a precise family dynamic. That might include a domineering older brother or a whiny younger sister. It might mean being born with a silver spoon in your mouth or into the grip of poverty. Introverted or extroverted, bold or timid, robust or weak, tall or short, handsome or not. With specific talents and abilities, and an exact level of intelligence, each person is placed into the ideal setting for him. Our lives fit us like a hand in a glove, as each situation was custom-designed by our Creator for that individual.


When a person understands this, life itself is fair. If not, then it makes no sense at all. How do you explain why some people have it so easy and yet others have it so hard? Why are some people born talented and others not? Why are some people born crippled? Or deaf or blind? Why is there autism in the world? What about polio?


How do you explain two brothers? One leads an idyllic life; everything he touches turns to gold — he is successful in business, has a great marriage, and his kids love him. But everything his brother touches turns to mud. He can’t earn a living. His marriage is a wreck, and his kids are miseries. You can’t argue that they had different upbringings. They were born to the same parents, raised in the same house, and went to the same yeshivas. Yet one leads an enchanted existence, and the other is a shlemiel.

Roles We Play


If our condition in this world really mattered, there would be no answer to these questions. If this world were the reason for Creation, then none of these situations would be fair. But, that is the point: none of them matter; they are simply different life settings. We are but actors on the stage. Our role is to play our part — rich or poor, handsome or ugly, successful or not. We aren’t judged by the part we play, but how we play it. The role is irrelevant. The props don’t define us. The only thing that matters is what we do with our time on this planet. 


When we leave this temporary existence no one asks, “So, nu, tell me. How did you earn your living? Did you at least make a lot of money? Did the world shower you with honor?”


No one cares. It just doesn’t matter. And while this is obvious, it seems to be one of the most elusive concepts. So much of what we don’t understand about life is based on why one person has it so good, and why HASHEM didn’t give that situation to me. Why? Why? Why?


 If we fully understood that it is all irrelevant, the question wouldn’t occur to us. Why was she given that creep as a husband? Why was I born into a divorced home? Why is it so easy for him to learn and so hard for me? If, at the end of our days, we would be given the same written entrance exam into Gan Eden (paradise), then these would be valid questions. But we aren’t. We are each given our own exam, and the questions were hand written for us. This will be your given talent pool. This will be the stage setting of your life. This is what you are capable of accomplishing. How far did you take it?  

The Answer to Rebbe Elazar Bar Padas


This seems to be the answer to Rebbe Elazar bar Padas. That was the ideal life’s setting for him. He was given a very exact backdrop, perfectly designed to challenge him. It would allow him to reach his potential. But that life included poverty. Not because HASHEM didn’t have enough money, and not because HASHEM wasn’t concerned for his good, but because that was the perfect laboratory for his growth. Based on his inner nature and abilities, that was the best opportunity to allow him to reach his potential.


Great wealth is a life test. When a person is so wealthy that he doesn’t know where to begin spending his money – that is a very difficult test. In that state, the human feels strong and independent. “I don’t need anyone. I can buy and sell the world. I don’t need my children. I don’t need my wife. I don’t even need God.” For some people, that is the perfect stage setting to challenge them to reach their potential.


Just as wealth is a test, so too is poverty. When you are so poor that you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, and somehow you just scraped together the mortgage payment, and that night you hit a parked car, and no one saw it. . . do you leave a note or not? That is a very real test. These situations aren’t accidents and they aren’t happenstance. They are orchestrated life settings.

The Perfect Setting


This is what HASHEM was saying to Rebbe Elazar bar Padas. “This is the perfect life for you. This is the ideal setting to allow you to grow.  Do you want Me to reshuffle the deck, search for a life that doesn’t include poverty and will still allow you to reach your potential? Maybe I can, and maybe I can’t. Because this life is perfectly designed for you.”


This concept is fundamental to understanding life. HASHEM put us here for a few short years. We were given almost unlimited potential to grow and become the great individuals that we were destined to be. We were put into the ideal stage setting and given all the right tools for that growth.


This is an excerpt from the new Shmuz on Life Book, available soon at your local Sefarim store, or at the Shmuz.com.


            What is the Shmuz?  The Shmuz is an engaging, motivating Torah lecturer that deals with real life issues, issues ranging from "working on anger" to "learning to be a better spouse," from "how prayer functions" to "what is my purpose in this world?"



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