It was true that Jack had a difficult life. He struggled to earn a living and was always in debt. His marriage was strained and his children were not easy to raise. In general, something always went wrong for Jack.
Deeply religious, Jack tried his best to view his problems from a religious perspective. “I know there are no accidents in life”, he would say. “If the Almighty wants me to suffer, it must be for a good reason.”
But try as he may, this line of reasoning made things more difficult for Jack. If he were an atheist, Jack would have accepted his unfortunate lot. Lady Luck didn’t shine on him and fate dealt him a bad hand. Those are the breaks and what can you do? But because Jack knew that God orchestrated his misfortune, it was obvious (to Jack) that this was a Divine punishment for bad behavior. Jack would often think out loud: “Apparently God doesn’t like me. Why else would He persecute me? But what have I done to deserve this? I know I’m not perfect, but neither is anyone else I know.”
Jack prayed for salvation and also pleaded for insight. “Please Hashem, could you send me a Malach (angel) for just a few minutes to explain why I am being tortured? Why can’t I have an easier life like other people?” God didn’t respond to this request, but there are many ways that He answers a person’s prayers.
It was a strange experience.
Jack was a gym teacher and he coached the school basketball team. One hot and humid day, Mike Bricks, one of the star players, collapsed in the middle of a game. The fans yelled words of encouragement, but Mike could not get up off the court.
Jack followed Mike to the locker room, as he was carried off the field. Suddenly this typically calm player launched an attack against his coach. “You know, you are torturing us. We run back and forth, up and down the court, and then we have to jump to shoot the ball in the hoop, all day long. That’s how they treat prisoners in a forced labor camp. They work day and night carrying bricks on their backs until they collapse from sheer exhaustion, just as I did now.”
Jack was taken aback by this assault, but he was even more surprised by his own passionate response. It was as if someone got inside his head and told him what to say.
“Mike, you have the potential to be a great athlete one day, but you have to love the game. Does a great violinist feel tortured when he practices a beautiful concerto for hours each day? Do you think Leonardo da Vinci was tortured when he labored in love painting his great masterpiece, the Mona Lisa? Mike, every hero knows, ‘No pain, no gain’. Greatness is achieved by overcoming obstacles. Torture is when you are forced to do something of no value, which you hate and despise. But sports is an art, and a great athlete is on a crusade every time he dribbles the ball and forges his way past the offense on the basketball court. When a player leaps gracefully in the air and shoots the ball through the hoop, there is no greater sense of satisfaction and achievement.”
Jack knew he was exaggerating, and he wondered what compelled him to speak as he did.
Unfortunately, Jack failed to pay attention to his own words. But he soon had another chance.
Jack’s favorite sport was tennis and his son Benny loved watching his father play the game. That afternoon, Jack played a spirited game against a tough challenger. His opponent’s serve was particularly mean, and Jack struggled to return the ball.
On the way home, Benny asked his father a simple question.
“Dad, why do you always choose such difficult opponents? Why not play someone who doesn’t hit the ball so hard?”
Jack knew this was a great chance to teach his son one of those valuable lessons of life. “Benny, always remember this. The thrill of the sport is in the challenge! Anyone can hit an easy lob, but only a master player can race across the court and return a serve that flies over the net.”
Benny understood, but Jack still didn’t get it.
That night he had the dream. Jack was sitting at a desk opposite an administrative Malach (angel) who was preparing Jack for his imminent arrival. “So here is the deal. Soon you’ll leave the womb and enter a new world. It’s a great place to live, and I wish you hatzlocho.
The world is a magnificent testing ground. Every time you pass a test, you redefine yourself and move to a higher plane of personal growth and religious development. Many people have easy tests, which allow only minimal reward. But special souls endure very difficult tests, which provide for very significant growth potential.
You have been chosen to be in the elite group. This is a great privilege. The key to success will lie in your attitude. You must feel that greatness is achieved by overcoming obstacles, and the thrill of the sport is in the challenge”.
Jack was excited. “I know you will be proud of me one day.”
The Malach responded with reservation, “But here is the rub. While you move through life, you will not remember our conversation, and that’s what will make the course so hard. Oh, there will be subtle reminders along the way – a powerful sermon from a Rabbi, or an inspiring Torah thought that you might read. But when the difficult shots come flying at you, the reality will seem so compelling that it will be difficult to remember that it’s just a game.”
Jack woke up with a startle and reviewed the entire dream. “Wow, I get it now. I finally understand. I can hardly wait for the next test.”
Jack walked into his office the next morning a new man, no longer fazed by the heavy burdens of his life. He thought to himself, “Life is a great tournament, and I’m ready to play the game.”
Jack entered his office and saw the pink slip on his chair. He read it with trembling hands.
Dear Mr. Stein,
As you know, our school has been experiencing financial difficulties as of late, and we have been forced to downsize our staff. We are sorry to inform you that we will not renew your contract as gym teacher for the next semester.
On behalf of the entire administration, we thank you for your 23 years of devoted service to our school, and wish you much success in your future endeavors.
The Board of Education
The words penetrated like arrows, and Jack collapsed in his chair in a daze. Thoughts raced through his mind. “God is doing me in again. Why me? What have I done to deserve this torment?”
Finally he gathered his belongings together; the picture of his children, his favorite coffee mug, the trophies his team had won and 23 years of memorabilia.
As Jack slowly made his way down the hall, Sam Block emerged from his office. Sam was the second gym teacher at the school, as well a close personal friend. When Jack spotted Sam, he began to worry that Sam may have been dismissed as well. He carefully studied Sam’s face for signs of distress and was relieved to see that Sam was in good spirits.
“Good morning Jack. What a great day! The sun is shining, but it’s not too hot – perfect weather for team practice”.
Apparently his friend had not been fired. Jack was relieved, but he wondered why the Board of Ed chose to let him go and not Sam – particularly since Sam joined the school two years later than Jack.
Suddenly, it struck him. Sam was five years older than Jack, and most people assumed that Sam was with the school longer. Jack’s dismissal was based on a misconception, and he could easily save his job by establishing his seniority. But that would mean that Sam would be fired in his stead.
Jack now faced a great moral dilemma. He returned to his office, sat in his chair and carefully considered the two options.
“On the one hand, how can I save my job at Sam’s expense? Sam’s my close friend. His wife died last year and he’s just begun to pull himself together. Losing his job would be devastating. I will destroy him if I take away his job.
On the other hand, the job should be mine. I have to worry about myself too. How will I support myself without my position? If Sam loses his job, it will not be my fault. The Board of Ed decided to cut the budget, not me.
Why did God do this to me? Why did he put me in this terrible predicament?”
Jack thought long and hard. Finally he made his decision. “I must protect myself first”.
His mind made up, Jack marched down the hall to the office of Mr. Johnson, the school principal. He walked in and asked the secretary to let Mr. Johnson know that he had an important matter to discuss.
As he waited, a radio on the receptionist’s desk broadcast the final game of the World Series. The two teams were tied, three games each, and this was the deciding game of the series.
There was great tension in the air. It was the 9th inning, two men out, with the home team trailing 4-1. The radio announcer was yelling into the microphone.
“I can’t believe it. As the last player on the bench, Mac Stine is approaching the plate as a pinch hitter, but he has one arm in a cast! With a handicap like that, how can he possibly hit the ball?”
“The pitch, a fast curve ball, Mac swings, he connects, the ball is in the air, amazing, the ball is flying into deep center field, that ball is going, going, gone! Mac Stine has hit a grand slam in the ninth inning to take the game 5-4, and win the World Series in the final game. This will go down in the annals of baseball history. Many players have hit grand slam homeruns in the clutch, but no one has done it with such a handicap. The crowd is in frenzy, as Mac makes his way around the bases.”
The announcer jarred something deep in Jack’s consciousness. Jack stammered, “Hashem, I hear you loud and clear. I got the message, and I won’t forget it now.”
Finally, Mr. Johnson emerged from his office. “Jack, please come in and have a seat. I heard about the decision of the Board of Ed, and I am so sorry. What a great tragedy! I can’t believe they are letting you go after 23 years of distinguished service. At first I feared for Sam’s job as well, but I’m glad that at least his position is secure.”
Jack took a deep breath. “Mr. Johnson, I appreciate your concern, but you know, we Jews have an expression, Gam zu litovah. That means, ‘This too is for the best’. I am sure God has my best interests in mind, and I am not worried. After all, He created a universe with billions of stars; I know He can provide my livelihood with no effort at all.”
The radio announcer’s voice rose like a crescendo. “Mac Stine is making his way around home plate and the crowd is on their feet, clapping a deafening applause. Well there you have it folks, Jack Stein has hit a grand-slam homerun with an unbelievable handicap to clinch the World Series. This is history in the making.”
Mr. Johnson turned to Jack. “Funny, it sounded like he said Jack Stein has hit a grand-slam home run.”
The angels were cheering too. Jack just hit one of the best shots of his lifetime.
Rabbi Yaakov Luban is the Executive Rabbinic Coordinator of the Kashruth Department at the Orthodox Union. He is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, NJ.
Other Elul/Days of Awe stories by Rabbi Luban:
* The Angel's Deception
* The Pendulum
* An E-Mail from Hashem
* A Story for the Days of Awe
* Changing Perspectives
* If you received e-mail from an angel, would you heed… The Heavenly Call
* The Merry – Go – Round