Making the Most of a Bad Situation

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It was the most unlikely of news stories.

On a sunny mid-July weekend, 19-year-old Eleanor Walton and her friends attended the Ripon Races in Leeds, England. Walton, apparently looking resplendent in her white jumpsuit, was chagrined to find herself doused with red wine by another attendee, staining her previously pristine outfit. Oh, no! Is a day at the races ruined? (To say nothing of a night at the opera, for all you Marx Brothers fans.)

Have no fear! It’s Walton’s friend Mia Williamson to the rescue! Williamson took four more glasses of red wine (it was an open bar) and… poured those on Walton’s jumpsuit as well. (What?) After the outfit was tie-dyed with wine in the bathroom sink, followed by 20 minutes under the hot-air dryer, Walton returned to the soiree now resplendent in a white-and-mauve swirled jumpsuit.

It may not be surprising that this story was picked up by the British newspapers and tabloids – The Daily Mail, the Mirror, the Sun, etc. – as a fascinating bit of local news but I read about it in Time and I saw reports on it from as far away as New Zealand. Clearly, this story grabbed people with its inventiveness in turning lemons into lemonade. Or wine into dye.

Is this story not an apt metaphor for life? Consider the following statement from Eiruvin 13b: For two and a half years, Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai engaged in a philosophical debate. Beis Shammai maintained that it would have been better had man never been created, while Beis Hillel were of the opinion that it’s better that man has been created. Ultimately, they put it to a vote and concluded that it would have been better had man not been created but, now that he’s here, he should make the most of it (by correcting his past misdeeds and carefully determining his future actions).

Of course, Walton’s example isn’t just a metaphor for life in its broadest existential strokes; it also applies to the details of our individual existences. After all, are we all not thrust into situations not of our choosing? This happens literally from the moment we’re born and we have the potential to make the most of our circumstances – or the least.

Consider Adam and Chava who were literally born in Paradise but who managed to mess things up pretty royally. Or consider Avraham, who was born into the home of Terach, an idol-maker by trade, but who managed to forge a unique relationship with God.

This is also a reality we see with the various rulers in the Book of Kings. For example, King Chiziyahu was raised by the evil King Achaz but he managed to turn out righteous; King Menashe was raised by the righteous King Chiziyahu but he managed to turn out evil.

I have a background in linguistics and we used to work with “minimal pairs,” which refers to pairs of words or phrases that differ in only one phonological element, such as “pray” and “bray” in English, or “hischaver” and “hischaber” in Hebrew. An example of a “minimal pair” when it comes to people born into the same situation would be the twins Yaakov and Eisav.

They were both born into Yitzchak and Rivka’s household. They both had Avraham Avinu for a grandfather until they were the age of bar mitzvah. If anything, Eisav had the superior upbringing because he had the righteous Yaakov for a brother, while Yaakov had the evil Eisav! And yet, despite having the same environment, Yaakov took his circumstances and became a simple scholar, while Eisav became a bloodthirsty hunter and potential murderer. (Possibly an actual murderer if you take literally the Midrash that he killed Nimrod.)

It is true that Eisav had certain inclinations even from the womb (see the Midrash cited by Rashi on Genesis 25:22) but a predisposition is not the same as preordination. The Talmud in Shabbos (156a) tells us that a person with an inclination towards bloodshed could become a killer but he could also become a surgeon, a mohel or a shochet, channeling his nature in positive directions. “Hakol kol Yaakov v’hayadayim y’dei Eisav” – The voice is Yaakov’s but the hands are Eisav’s” (Genesis 27:22) – a person has both potentials within him and can choose to go either way.

The Dubno Maggid tells a story about a king who had a diamond that was very beautiful except for a long crack. He offered a great reward to anyone who could fix the diamond without cutting it. The most expert jewelers told the king that his request was impossible but one craftsman accepted the challenge. When the craftsman returned the diamond a week later, the king saw that he had carved a rose into the gem, using the crack as its stem. Now the diamond was even more beautiful, elevated from a mere jewel to a work of art.

Each of us has cracks. We get wine spilled on us. We’re born in Terach’s house or have Eisav for a brother. If nothing else, we’re here against our wills, facing all the challenges that life brings. That’s okay. We’re all in that boat together. We just have to know that our circumstances don’t define us. A potential killer can choose to be a surgeon, a cracked diamond can be a work of art, and red wine can be used to tie-dye your whites. The choice is up to us.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.