This week, the young granddaughter of a friend of mine had a heart procedure, part of the continuing treatment of a condition with which she was born. Within 36 hours, she was home from the hospital and smiling. While I don’t know the particulars of her medical circumstances, I think it fair to say that had she been born in an earlier time she might not have survived the challenges she faced in infancy. Certainly, the continuing care would not have had her so quickly back at home and feeling well. God’s mercy is good and we are grateful for His medical messengers.
Working on our own hearts, however, has not become any easier over the generations. Whatever our flaws, be they a tendency to anger, to envy, to vanity, to holding grudges, there has been no advance in technology that allows us to quickly overcome our internal adversaries. The list in the previous sentence could be much longer and each individual’s particular challenge presents in a slightly different way. Not only is there no quick fix for our character flaws, but our hearts and minds rationalize our shortcomings so that even acknowledging the existence of our defects requires real courage and honesty.
I once had the privilege of being consulted by a wise woman who was facing secondary infertility. Although her first pregnancy and delivery came with stunning simplicity, the years were passing and a much desired second child was not coming. At the same time, she and her husband were contemplating accepting upon themselves a particular religious obligation. She confided to me that she was nervous that, even subconsciously, she might be making a deal with God: I’ll commit to this behavior for You and in return You will give me another child. If God didn’t keep His end of the deal, she might distance herself from Him and resent the observance. Only once she had worked on herself to separate her prayerful pleas from her commitment to religious growth did she and her husband incorporate this new practice into their lives.
While this couple did indeed welcome a new child within the year, they were correct in recognizing that we don’t make quid-pro-quo deals with God. We can only commit to what we will do, not to His response. This idea was tragically illustrated when, in 2014, three Israeli teenage boys didn’t arrive home when expected. Their kidnapping (by a Hamas-inspired Palestinian) galvanized the Jewish community (among others) around the world. The eighteen days until the boys’ mutilated bodies were found sparked hundreds of thousands of heartfelt prayers and many commitments to good deeds. Speaking of that time, Racheli Frankel, the mother of one of the boys said,
“I thought that prayer had a lot of power to it, but it doesn’t work like an ATM. You don’t press buttons and get results. G-d isn’t my employee. I told my children, ‘We will pray, and HaKadosh Baruch Hu [God] will act in accordance with His will.’”
Just as we know that God may not respond in the way we wish He would, we also know that He cherishes our growth. We can soften our hearts instead of adamantly defending our right to be hurt, or extend charity and graciousness to others way beyond what we thought we could, or push back in others ways against our often deeply embedded, instinctive way of looking at the world. When we do so, our healing and good spiritual health can be genuine and long-lasting even if we need to work on ourselves for more than 36 hours.