Our Fixation on Happy Endings

On Friday night, I heard a story – about a businessman in Baltimore who returned to Judaism late in life. Though he did not have the skills in Torah study of many of his new found peers, he found other ways to express his commitment to Torah and Jewish life – through tzedakah, charity and good deeds. For him and his wife, tzedakah was personal – it became for them what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik describes as a ‘worshipful performance’ – an expression of their personalities in the service of G-d.

But then came Lehman and AIG, and the story that continues on the front page of every paper – that is, those papers not put out of business by the crisis. His portfolio declined forty-five percent; his profits diminished; his expenses, however, were on the rise. The couple hoped to continue giving as they had in previous years, though given their circumstances, they had already fulfilled their obligation for charity – even when defined by the most maximalist measure. So committed was his wife, however – even willing to give up her comfortable home for more modest quarters – that she encouraged her husband to consult a legal authority in Israel about their predicament. The rabbi answered quickly: of course the businessman – now down on his luck – had fulfilled his obligations. But, the rabbi added, if he and his wife were to find a cause which they found truly worthy, then further donations would be meritorious. Thinking through the advice of the sage, the couple determined to adjust their lifestyle – so they would be able to give close to the level they had in previous years.

An inspirational story – though it continues.

Only a few days later, the businessman received a phone call from a Swiss broker – who managed a large portion of his funds. It seems an error had been made – holdings had not been properly cataloged, account statements not properly calculated. The bottom line – the opposite of the Madoff story! – a surplus of funds in the range of several million dollars! Not only did this cover his previous losses, but the newly found income made the couple wealthier than ever before!

A triumphant look from the one telling the story; smiles all around, but when the warm fuzzy feeling dissipated, I thought of another story – that of Abraham, his uncle Haran, and the wicked tyrant Nimrod.

Our sages tell us that when Terach discovered his son’s belief in one G-d, he turned him over to Nimrod, who threw him in a fiery furnace: ‘if your G-d is so powerful,’ Nimrod boasted to Abraham, ‘let him rescue you!’ Standing on the sidelines, Uncle Haran calculated – ‘if Abraham gets torched, then I am with Nimrod; if he survives, I’m with Abraham.’ When Abraham emerged triumphantly from the furnace, Nimrod asked Haran – ‘whose side are you on?’ True to his prepared script, Haran answered – ‘For Abraham!’ And then Nimrod threw Haran into the fire where he was burnt to a crisp.

Haran makes his calculations not on principle, but on cost-benefit. Not because of his faith in G-d, but because of hopes of reward. ‘If Abraham turns out to be father of all the nations of the world, I will be his right-hand man… and if not – thinking like an Israeli politician – I’ll find something to do in Nimrod’s government.’

The message of this story is similar: do a good deed, and get properly compensated. It’s as if I’m saying to G-d: ‘Let’s be business partners… I’ll do my share, the mitzvos; you protect my family from hardship, and if you can throw in some earthly reward (BMW 320i in black please), that will also be fine. So whatever I give to you G-d, I will expect the dividends.’

This is what Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik calls the mentality of a religion for children – the pragmatic quid pro quo, the calculation and anticipated receipt of my just returns. But it’s not only childish – it’s dangerous. What happens when G-d isn’t the business partner I expect? Do I break off the business arrangement? After all, childish expectations do yield to disappointment. The facile stories of simple reward – our sages tell us we don’t know the nature of the reward for any given mitzvah – may lead to not just disappointment, but despair. ‘This business arrangement,’ I might think, ‘is not working out the way I had anticipated. Not at all.’ And then what?

The couple from Baltimore did the right thing – an inspiring thing. Even – or especially – without the results. With the coda of wealth and reward – thank G-d that it was, in this case, the outcome – it becomes part of the literature for a religion for children where there is always a happy ending. Though we may hope – and pray – for such endings, our ‘end’ in the moment in which we live is to transform ourselves through mitzvos that bring us close to the divine. So the story of the businessman from Baltimore, without the coda of the guaranteed happy ending, fits in a different and more demanding canon of stories – that of a religion which a fellow blogger calls ‘complex,’ or more simply a religion for adults.

The purveyors of the happy endings – and in our post-holocaust generation there is, strangely, a near cultural obsession with such stories – assume there are no longer any adults in the audience. I’m betting otherwise. Am I wrong?

16 comments on “Our Fixation on Happy Endings

  1. Whenever we give people an unrealistic, too-generalized picture of how things work in Olam HaZeh, any obvious counterexample can throw them off track.

    However, we should be extremely thankful to HaShem for all the good we do see happening here to ourselves and to others. The beracha “Modim” and the prayer “Nishmas” are examples.

  2. Finally, someone is saying this. I always lament that we are the “yosef Moker Shabbos” generation — expecting the pearl for our Mitzvos. For every Yosef Moker Shabbos, there might be a Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, who no matter what good he did, could not become rich because his role in the world was to be poor. Teaching children only the Yosef Moker Shabbos stories means that when they don’t have the treasures pour down on them their faith is shaken. G-d told Moshe “Ushmi Hashem” the rewards and riches that were promised to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov did not come in their lives, but their faith was not shaken. Reward there is for the right thing. But, even though we live in an instant society, we should never be teaching our kids that Judaism is like instant mashed potatoes — put in Mitzvos, stir a bit, and have instant reward. Reward might be instant, but it might be something reserved for the next world and not given to us in pension plans.

  3. Exactly. הקב”ה מדקדק עם צדיקים כחוט השערה – H’ tests us to the limits of our capacity and judges us according to our capabilities.

  4. FFB,

    I understand your post more clearly now.

    As a matter of personal preference, however, I have difficulty with comparisons of catastrophes or salvations. So much of how Hashem operates is beyond our comprehension.

    Look at the punishment meted out to Avraham Avinu or Moshe Rabbenu for adverse acts that would barely be noted if committed by one of us; look at the tremendous rewards that are given to ordinary folks for meritorious acts that would barely be noted if performed by Avraham or Moshe.

  5. Would it be possible to say – as a preliminary further comment – that we are meant to live between the consciousness implicit in Pesach and Purim, the beginning and end of our liturgical year? On Pesach, we have the clear story to be narrated of our collective triumph, beginning with our impoverishment – גנות – and ending in our redemption and salvation. On Purim, by contrast, we look at the historical process – and the highest form of service on that day is עד דלא ידע, the admission that in exile, we just don’t know how G-d’s providence works. To live only with Pesach sensibility of clear and happy endings leads to first arrogance, and probably, in the end, to disappointment. To live only with the Purim sensibility may be to fail to take account – and narrate – the blessings that are bestowed upon us. Again a complex – and demanding – balance.

  6. Far be it from me to suggest such a thing. I wasn’t talking about individuals. What I meant was that as a klal we Jews deserved the privilege of Divine protection. For those who didn’t make it, Hy”d, there were other considerations in the Heavenly plan. As I said, this rule has exceptions.

    I heard a nice parable on that. You go into a store with a sign “shoes” and you find it’s a grocery. Across the street there’s a sign “grocery” but when you enter you see it’s a shoe store. Would you conclude that this is how the world works, every grocery is really a shoe store and vice versa? Of course not. You’d understand that this is an exception that must have some explanation. Perhaps the owners recently exchanged stores.

    I think the nimshal is clear.

  7. I think the reason we like happy endings so much is because we want to understand Hashem’s perfect justice. When the result seems to reward the deserving, we can see it (or think we can). The other way is a lot harder. Often the happy ending can take many years to arrive and there may be many hardships along the way. My grandfather cosigned a loan for someone in Europe before the depression. When the borrower defaulted, my grandfather was presented with the bill, which he couldn’t pay either. He went to America, where he had family, to earn enough to pay back the loan. It took years of hard work and separation from his family before he saw the happy ending. But there was one. Because of this, he was able to get his family out of Europe before the holocaust.

  8. Far be it from us to say who among the 9/11 survivors was “deserving of a little treat” and who among the fallen was any less deserving.

  9. I know it is wrong to always expect happy endings because sometimes our faith must be tested. What disturbs me most is when Jewish holy books promise that a specific mitzvah will produce a certain result, and then the result does not happen.

    Our Torah promises that donating maaserot will result in the donors becoming wealthy. I used to give 20% of my income to tzedakah, and I gave each donation with maximum speed. The result: For many years now, my ability to earn parnassah has been totally destroyed, and I am forced to live with relatives who do not observe Shabbat or eat kosher, and I have no hope of ever being able to support myself ever again.

    When I researched this subject, I discovered that the promise of wealth to maaser donors only applies to agricultural maaserot in Eretz Yisrael, not to monetary donations.

    Years of experience have shown me that the Jewish organizations I donated to were not nearly as worthy as I thought they were. I warn you: NEVER give money to an organization called ——– or a man who calls himself RABBI ——— unless you want to waste your money (edited by Administrator).

  10. Still, isn’t it amazing that so many more frum Jews escaped 9/11 (and the scud attacks) than unfortunately didn’t? Are these religious fairy tales?

    True happy-ending tales have many explanations:

    הנה לא ינום ולא ישן שומר ישראל

    שלוחי מצוה אינן נזיקין

    …והיה אם שמוע תשמעו… למען ירבו ימיכם

    And some others. These are the rules, but every rule has exceptions.

    When people asked why so many Jews missed the 9/11 attack (some going so far as to attribute it to a “Jewish conspiracy”) I felt like telling them, “Well, don’t we deserve a little treat like that after 2000 years of exile, having lived through a Holocaust, living in this dor hamabul, and still clinging to Hashem, going to selichos and preparing for Rosh Hashana?”

  11. It’s also well known that our bechira (free choice) would be undermined if we could always see what looks like a positive result in Olam Hazeh (this world).

  12. Great post. Between you and the first two commenters I think every point has been hit on this. Everyone should read it.

    Understanding this point doesn’t make for fewer happy endings — it makes for more. Because avoda, tefillah and gemilus chasadim — and all mitzvos — are, as the Sages remind us, their own reward.

  13. One instance of this thinking comes after a disaster. We catalogue those who didn’t show up because they were detained, got sick, had to go somewhere else all of a sudden,…,but not those who did show up, because the former group escaped the disaster. To really understand the dynamics of HaShem’s hashgacha over us, within our ability to do so, we have to consider all phenomena, not just the appealing ones. For example, who are we to really know why some Tzaddikim escaped the Shoah and others were murdered?

  14. I’m so relieved to read this post. I think that we are doing our children a disservice by feeding them these religous fairy tales. Life and Hashem’s calculations are far more complex than we know. Sometimes good people do lose their wealth, sick people don’t get healed and good people suffer. That is part of life. It is our job to turn it over, to place our faith in Hashem’s wisdom even as we fail to understand it. These stories with their happily ever after ending fail to do this and as a result might create a generation unable to cope when the prayed for happy ending fails to materialize.

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