When You Least Expect It

Life is full of surprises, sometimes for the better but often for the worse. It can throw us for a loop and shake up all of our assumptions. Our challenge lies in how we deal effectively with sudden and unexpected events.

A Nazir is one who undertakes a vow to refrain from consuming grape products, letting his hair grow wild and avoiding becoming defiled through contact with a human corpse. He must minimally abide by this vow for thirty days. This vow is often prodded by a deep desire to abstain from the alluring pleasures of this world in order to maintain an elevated connection with G-d.

Imagine the enthusiasm of one who takes on this great challenge and is just one day away from proudly fulfilling his vow and finds himself in the company of someone who dies suddenly in his presence. He must now go through a process of purification, shearing his hair and bringing several sacrifices, among them a guilt-offering, and begin anew a period of Nazirus in fulfillment of his original commitment.

One can imagine his frustration and doubting thoughts. Here it is he so valiantly seeks to bring himself closer to G-d and this is what is thrown in his path? 

Indeed, the great High Priest, Shimon HaTzaddik, never partook from the guilt-offering of those who became defiled and had to redo their Nazirus. He was concerned that in the face of their great disappointment they would inwardly regret having undertaken their original vow of Nazirus, and he thus questioned the sincerity of the original promise.

We live our lives filled with expectation. We presume to get close to G-d, we expect to be successful, to find a wife, have children, be healthy and the list goes on. When our expectations aren’t met we are disappointed, but why? Whoever guaranteed our wish list of blessings?

Not only are we defeated but we actually feel resentment. This stems from unrealistic expectations and a skewed sense of entitlement based on our very limited vision of what is best for us.

There is an oft quoted aphorism that encapsulates this idea that goes: Expectations are Premeditated Resentments

We set ourselves up for unhappiness. If only we would incorporate into our consciousness that no one can ever claim entitlement to anything in a world run by G-d, we would never face any ill-will in life. Certainly we may and must maintain hope and optimism that we may be blessed in a manner we can relate to, however in the absence of attaining those wishes we must be able to accept with utter faith any surprises that may come our way.

The expression used to describe this sudden and unfortunate encounter with a corpse is the word פתאם (במדבר ו ט), quick suddenness. The letters of this word are the first letters of each word in the verse in Proverbs, אל תירא — מפחד פתאם (משלי ג כה), Be not afraid — of a sudden fright.

(קטרת סמים)

Sudden events that upset our equilibrium can only instill fear and anger if we expect life to work out according to our personal view. If we live with hope in place of self-righteous expectation we will be able to survive and continue to remain hopeful.

Shimon Hatzaddik made one exception however to his theory. The Talmud (נזיר ד:) reports the following episode:

Shimon Hatzaddik said: In the whole of my life, I never ate of the guilt-offering of a nazir, except in one instance. There was a man who came to me from the South. He had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls. I asked him: Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy such beautiful hair? He answered: In my native town, I was my father’s shepherd, and, on going down to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection [in its waters]. My heart leaped within me and my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to compass my ruin, and so I said to it: Evil one! Why do you plume yourself over on a world that is not your own? For your end is but worms and maggots. I swear that I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven! Then I rose and kissed him upon his head and said to him: May there be many Nazirites such as you in Israel. Of one such as yourself does the verse say: A man or a woman who shall pronounce a special vow of a Nazir, to consecrate themselves to G-d.) Talmud, Nazir 4b)

What rang so pure in the ears of Shimon HaTzaddik in the sentiments of this young shepherd?

Perhaps the key to his authenticity was evident in the words he addressed to himself when he said, Why do you plume yourself over on a world that is not your own?

A person who realizes that the gifts one is endowed with are tools for the expression of G-d’s will, and not as one’s own possession to utilize for personal gain and objectives, can be trusted to deal healthily with the many sudden surprises that lurk in the future.

One who has no expectations will never come to regret in disappointment, hope will spring eternal, continuing to guide one’s emotions, accepting with grace any challenges one may face.

This same word פתאם, quick suddenness, is found in only one other instance in Torah.

When Miriam shares with Aharon her doubt regarding their brother Moshe’s decision to refrain from family life with his wife Tzipporah, G-d appears to all three of them פתאם (במדבר יב ד), suddenly. Since Miriam and Aharon had not similarly abstained from family life and were thus in a state of impurity, they found themselves unprepared to speak to G-d. They panicked, screaming for water in order to cleanse themselves quickly. (רש”י שם)

Perhaps there is more intended here in the message of G-d’s sudden appearance than just differentiating between the level of Moshe’s prophecy, that required his constant preparedness, and that of Miriam’s and Aharon’s.

Firstly, that Miriam had no right to expect behavior from Moshe that was limited by her own lesser stature. Expectations from others also create resentment, as it clearly did in her negative attitude and judgment of Moshe. 

Secondly, we can only have expectations from ourselves, as obviously Moshe did, by his finding it necessary to remain ready and able at all times, thus separating from his wife. 

Thirdly, despite Moshe’s demand of himself to retain the elevated state of consciousness, nevertheless when G-d did actually appear it was equally described as פתאם, a “sudden” surprise to Moshe as well. One can never presume a response, merely hope.

Moshe Rabbeinu epitomized the perfect relationship with G-d, tasking oneself towards greatness but never feeling entitled. Moshe was always ready and hopeful but never did he expect anything, and was therefore never resentful.

We arrived at Mount Sinai on the first of Sivan. That very day we left the previous encampment, Refidim, as well. Refidim was the battleground where the first encounter with Amalek took place. After having been accustomed to living under G-d’s special attention and protection as evidenced in the exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Reed Sea, we were victims of a surprise attack at the hands of evil Amalek.

The Vilna Gaon teaches that the verse in Proverbs quoted earlier instructing us not to fear, פחד פתאם, a sudden terror, refers precisely to this very event, the surprise attack of Amalek. 

(דברי אליהו אסתר)

Amalek was the product of the union between Timna and Elifaz the son of Esav. Initially, Timna a daughter of royalty, sought to enter in the family of Avraham. This was a courageous display of nobility, showing her willingness to sacrifice a life of pleasure in the palaces of her family for a life of devotion to the ideals of the Patriarchs. She was nevertheless shunned and consequently disappointed and ultimately became resentful. She took her revenge by marrying into the nefarious family of Esav, and the rest is history.

Amalek posed for us the ultimate test of פתאם, sudden terror.

We can only be worthy to receive the Torah if we are prepared to live with hope absent of expectation. This is the very fiber of our relationship with G-d, which will prod us towards the greatness inherent within each one of us.

We are taught that the defeat of Amalek is what compelled Yisro to join our ranks.

לץ תכה — Strike the cynic, ופתי יערים — and make the fool clever. (משלי יט כה) 

The cynic is Amalek and the fool is Yisro. (תנחומא יתרו ג)

Yisro bounced from idol to idol in a quest to see which deity would meet his expectations.

פתי  — A fool, believes in everything.  (שם יד טו)

A fool is called a פתי rooted in the word פתה, which means seduced. In man’s search for gratification we are seduced into grabbing at proverbial “straws” that promise to bring us our desires. 

Yisro finally came to realize it is not our expectations that bring us happiness and purpose but a commitment to the true Creator who is the sole arbiter of our happiness.

As we just accepted the Torah anew, we first affirm our readiness to deal with the enemy of פתאם, self-generated disappointment that occurs when we don’t get our way.

פתאם is rooted in the word פתי, because it is only the foolishness of self-delusion that separates us from cleaving joyously to G-d. When we are no longer perturbed by the sudden challenges we may face in life, recommitting ourselves to a higher consciousness of our loving Creator, then we will be ready to expect and demand from ourselves greatness and maintain an eternal hope to experiencing the glory of the final redemption.

May we conquer the forces of Amalek and display before G-d a readiness to accept whatever may come our way, and experience as our ancestors did 3,334 years ago, the greatest joy one ever can experience, the receiving of the Torah from the Almighty Himself!

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