Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"What Me Worry?"

The Talmud tells us of the great Amora Rav that he often frequented the cemetary there to commune with the dead. He would ask them of what did they die. In 99 out of a hundred cases the dead told him that they died as a result of the 'ayin hara', the evil eye. Only one in a hundred died due to the natural course of events (Bava Metziya 108b).

We know the 'ayin hara' is put on us by others, often those envious of us. In virtually all cases, neither the one causing the 'ayin hara' nor the one affected by it is aware of the dynamics.Those envious of us most often don't mean us harm. They are not wishing for bad to befall us. The 'ayin hara' is simply the result of their feeling of envy. And we who suffer from it have no idea that the source of our distress is the 'ayin hara'of another. The 'ayin hara' effect operates in the shadow of our lives. Red strings aside, essentially the 'ayin hara' is something we can neither control nor prevent.

And yet Rav informed us that 99% of people's death is because of it!

This week we read in the Torah the parsha of Balak. It tells the story of the non-Jewish prophet Bilam, and his attempt to curse the Israelites in the service of Balak the king of Moab. Each time Bilam attempted to utter curses, G-d protected us and turned the words of Bilam into blessings. The Israelites never knew they were at risk. The whole drama happens in the shadows. Yet clearly we, the Israelites were vulnerable. Were it not for the Divine protection, unknown to us, we might have sustained harm.

On a basic level the Torah tells us the story because it reveals to us how much we are loved and protected by Our Father in Heaven. Like our ancestors in the wilderness, we too are often protected from harm unknown to us by Hashem's care and intervention. So much of G-d's gifts to us go unrecognized because they, like the danger of Bilam and our rescue, live in the shadows.

Yet the lessons here are not only about our relationship to our G-d. I think there are intrapersonal lessons here as well.

Many of you, like me, may have read MAD Magazine as adolescents. You then will recall the main character, a nerdy looking kid named Alfred E. Newman. His signature line was "What me worry?". Now whats funny is that if anyone had to worry it was Alfred E Newman. He was not a strapping, good looking. robust 6ft2 jock. He was freckeled faced and awkward looking. He was very much the wimp. If a 'jock' said "what me worry" we would understand, but Alfred E Newman?

Yet with all we have been discussing Alfred E Newman's lack of worries makes total sense. Worrying ruins our lives. Its causes us to live in the future at the expense of enjoying our present. We are anxious over things that have not yet happened and may never. The worry diminishes our capacity to make choices helpful to us. It causes us lack of sleep, prevents us from experiencing the gift of the moment. The fear of what may be takes up our time and energies. It depletes us and robs us of our capacity to maxamize the here and now opportunities.

Typically we may try to mitigate our fears. We try to contain the things that may harm us in the future.In a limitted way we do that successfully when we take out life insurance.But many people spend their whole lives trying to protect themselves from the future, living life as if they were paying insurance to protect against loss. Forever cautious, forever ruled by fear, they think that if they live a regimented life they can prevent the harm from coming.
They live live protectively.

Rav already taught us that's a fools game. Ninety nine out of a hundred people die from 'ayin hara' One can't protect oneself from 'ayin hara'. The story of the parsha tells us similarly that those things that really threaten us live in the shadows, like Bilam's curses. We all have our Bilams. They are the dangers that threaten us far more than that which we know about and worry over consciously.

No, the response to worry can not be a life devoted to mitigating threats. The only true response is to recognize that we are all no better protected than Alfred E Newman. We have no immunity to the dangers that are ever-present and menacing. No insurance can safeguard us. Once we accept that, once we truly realize at a deep level that our vulenrability is as inevitable as life itself, we have no choice but to live with our uncertainties and to let go of the worry to no useful end.

The dangers for us are always present and mostly unknown. I dare say that what we thought when we were young would be the threats in our lives turned out not to be the ones we, in fact, had to confront. We had no way to anticpate what to worry over. And that remains as much true today.

We cannot make ourselves into supermen and superwomen,beyond the dangers, especially those that lurk in the shadows. We all are very much like Alfred E Newman.In the face of that which can harm us we are all wimpy adolescents. Our life work is not about self protection. Rather it is about trusting in Hashem and in the face of the ever-present dangers saying "What me worry!"

Shabbat Shalom

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