Ride the Wave Through Life’s Ups and Downs with Lauren Shaps
A few years ago, I flew to Cincinnati for a conference. I was pumped up with that feeling of self-importance that comes with leaving home and the familiar routine. "Wow!" I thought, “I’m flying on business like important people do."
After the conference, I was on a total high. Long before my flight took off, my head was so completely in the clouds that, out of my own stupidity and general spaciness, I missed my flight from Cincinnati to Washington, where I was supposed to make a connecting flight home to Ottawa.
Now, stuck in the airport for hours, frustration and regret began to kick in. “If only I had been paying closer attention. If only I could take those 10 minutes back.” It would have been easy for me to spiral down in self-recrimination. Not only would the rest of my day have been destroyed, but along with it, the whole impact of my wonderful experience.
With all of that free time in the airport, I started to think about how our lives cycle up and down, full of peaks and valleys. One moment, we are flying high and the next, we are in å pit of despair. My outlook changed a few years ago when I realized that ups and downs are normal, a natural part of life. I started to envision myself as a surfer; my job is to ride the wave.
This time of year, our calendar is full of reminders of ups and downs much more serious than missing a flight. One would think that the link between the Exodus from Egypt that we celebrate on Passover, and the giving of the Torah on Shavuot would be full of joyful anticipation. Yet, in practice, these days are observed as a time of quasi mourning – no haircuts, weddings or live music.
The Talmud speaks of the cause for mourning in a very cryptic manner. It tells us that we observe a period of national mourning because 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died during this period of time. The reason the Talmud gives for their deaths is a plague, which came about because they did not treat each other with proper respect. Some speculate that the plague may have been a Roman purge in retaliation against the students' involvement in rebellion against Rome in the years following the destruction of the Second Temple. Certainly, the Talmud wanted us to understand the crucial importance of relating to others with consideration and respect.
Next Wednesday night and Thursday, the mourning customs are interrupted by a day of celebration, Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer. Throughout the world and in Israel, this day is celebrated with huge and magnificent bonfires, especially in the northern Israeli town of Meron, the resting place of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
How does he factor into the story? When Rabbi Akiva's students perished in this mysterious plague, Rabbi Akiva was not demolished by despair. He never expected life to go easily or smoothly. An illiterate shepherd until the age of 40, Rabbi Akiva started with alef-bet and went on to become one of the greatest Torah sages. After the death of an unfathomable number of students, 24,000, he began anew with five. One of them was Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the most influential text of Kabbala, our mystical, esoteric teachings. He was an essential link in the transmission of Torah to the next generation.
Throughout our history, Jews have been forced to rebuild after immense destruction. Survivors of the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, the pogroms, and the Holocaust left the horrors of yesterday behind and focused on their present and their future, which paved the way for us today. Because of that ability to rebuild from the ashes, many of us as individuals, and almost all of our Jewish communities, exist today. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. We are one of the few generations throughout Jewish history that has received our Judaism on a silver platter. Yet, we are easily deterred by simple day-to-day challenges and frustrations.
G-d has not created a world that is simple or easy to navigate. Giving in to despair, large or small, will defeat us. We can't reclaim the past, but we can make the most of the present and build for the future. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to safeguard their Jewish future. Setbacks keep us humble and grounded, in my case, quite literally. I am in no way equating missing a flight with the deaths of 24,000 people, but, sitting in the airport, I drew upon this important lesson from Rabbi Akiva. If we want to truly fly, we have to pick ourselves up, recharge, renew, rebook and get to our next flight on time.
Lauren Shaps is a JWRP City Leader and full-time adult Jewish educator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps, and they are blessed with five children.