You Can’t Always Get What You Want

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Woman Shouting On Delivery Man For Damaged Package At Doorway

The Rolling Stones famously sing:

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want

I have a joke for you on that subject. (Warning: There may be a moral at the end.)

At the turn of the 20th century, recent immigrant Shloimie Fleischer was looking for a job. He heard that the Third Street Synagogue was looking to hire a shammes (attendant), so he decided to apply.

At the interview, Shloimie was greeted by the gabbai who asked him to write his name and address on a piece of paper.”

“I’m sorry,” Shloimie said with embarrassment, “but I don’t know how to read and write.”

“Mr. Fleischer,” the gabbai replied with condescension, “the Third Street Synagogue is a very prestigious congregation. I’m afraid it just wouldn’t do for us to employ a shammes who was… illiterate.” Shloimie left, discouraged.

Lacking options, he started a little pushcart business, selling needles and thread, and other little sundries. Customers liked him and he took pride in his merchandise, so soon he was able to open a little shop. That shop was soon replaced by a five and dime, which in turn was replaced by a department store. By the end of the decade, Shloimie had a chain of department stores throughout the tri-state area.

Looking to expand his operations into New England, Shloimie went to his local bank to arrange a loan.

“Certainly, Mr. Fleischer!” the bank officer squealed with delight. “Your reputation precedes you. Just sign here.” Shloimie obliged by making an X on the loan application.

“An X?” the banker noticed with surprise. “You’re such a wealthy and successful businessman, Mr. Fleischer! Can you imagine what you could have been if you could read and write?”

“I know exactly what I would have been,” Shloimie respoded. “The shammes at the Third Street Synagogue!”

This joke contains an important lesson about emunah. (You were warned that there might be a moral!) Our fictional immigrant wanted the shammes job, and he was disappointed not to receive it. (You can’t always get what you want.) God certainly could have arranged things so that the gabbai would have hired him but God knew that this wasn’t the path meant for Shloimie Fleischer. That path was intended for someone else.

Along these lines is the famous story of Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud in Brachos (60b) recounts how the Sage was once traveling with a rooster, a donkey and a lamp. Refused lodging in the village, he slept in the woods, where wild animals killed the rooster and the donkey, and the wind blew out his lamp. Rabbi Akiva’s response was to shrug and say, “All that God does is for the best.” It wasn’t until the next morning that Rabbi Akiva learned that bandits had raided the village during the night. Had he been granted lodging, or had his possessions revealed his location, he would have been killed. Rabbi Akiva had no idea why this particular course of action was for his benefit (You can’t always get what you want) but he had no doubt that it was.

Two, three years ago, I was quite the gym rat, working my experiences with CrossFit and marathons into my articles. Last summer, I wrote a long series on lessons I learned from my back surgery. Now, a year later, I still have a nasty list to one side and I walk distances of any real length with the assistance of a cane. When people ask about my recovery, I tell them that maybe I’ll improve some more and maybe this is as good as I’ll get but either way, I’m calling it a win. This surprises some people, who I guess expect me to be bitter or dissatisfied rather than generally positive. What can I say? Would I rather be lifting weights than hobbling around? Sure. But as we’ve mentioned, You can’t always get what you want. We can accept that what we’re given is right for us or we can be bitter about it. Either way, you don’t have the thing you wanted but in the latter scenario you have the added disadvantage of walking around in a bad mood. That’s no help. The truly wealthy person is the one who is satisfied with what he has in life (Avos 4:1).

Yes, the Rolling Stones do indeed sing:

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want

That chorus, however, has two more lines:

But if you try sometime, you might find
You get what you need.

We know that we don’t always get what we want in life; that reality is hammered home time and time again. But if we open our eyes and look around us, if we examine the paths of our lives, and if we trust that God always places us where we’re supposed to be, we just might find we get what we need.

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.