Q: What do you do when you are entering the last quarter of your life and you feel that you've accomplished nothing and haven't met God's expectations of who you were blessed to be. No one seems to have a good answer to this. — J.
A: I wish I could hug you, dear J, but distance and the coronavirus make that impossible. Your question touches me so deeply because I, too, am on the back nine of my life round. I, too, have had dark nights of the soul where I have also wondered if what I have tried to do really mattered or succeeded in any measurable way. I heard once that the most emotionally healthy workers are pilots, railway conductors and carpenters. All of them have work that provides them with a clear and measurable beginning, middle and end. If you are flying a plane or driving a train to Cleveland from New York and you get there with everyone intact, you have succeeded. When you build a house and it does not fall down, you have succeeded. I do not know your work, dear J, but in my work as a rabbi and teacher I never really know if my students have learned, if souls have been saved or commandments performed. I share your existential angst. Life does not give us a scorecard for what really matters.
One thing that has helped me endure and surmount the questions about my life's worth is that I simply did not quit trying. T.S. Eliot wrote, "Trying is all that matters. Everything else is just not our business." My ancestors, the rabbis of old taught, "It is not your obligation to finish the task, but neither is it your privilege to stop trying to complete it." You cannot know if you have succeeded but you can know if you tried your best. To even ask your question proves to me that you have indeed tried your best.
Perhaps you might also pray your way into this question, "Why is your sense of God's expectation for your life so high that it seems just a remote possibility for you?" Do you really think that God is so demanding, so imperious and stern that you have no chance of passing God's tests for you? What about the God who offered the prophet Micah these simple tasks, "Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God." God made you. What do you think are the odds that God would have made you to fail? I am impressed that you have taken so seriously God's commands. Perhaps it is time for you to take equally seriously God's love and forgiveness for your sins.
It has been my experience that many people who feel that God is overly demanding grew up in homes with overly demanding parents. If the people you love who gave you life were always tough on you, perhaps it is time to cut yourself some slack.
There is an old Yiddish story about a man named Bontche Schweig. He was a poor and humble merchant who lived a life of unceasing suffering but never ever complained. Bontche died alone and penniless. When Bontche came to the World To Come (the Jewish name for Heaven), all the angels were trumpeting their trumpets and singing praises to the Most High. Bontche was amazed and thought that some great person was surely coming to Heaven at the same time as he. He asked one of the angels what the celebration was about and the angel said, "We are all gathered to receive the most humble and the most righteous man God has ever made." Bontche was curious and stood aside to wait and see this holy man come to Heaven. Then he realized that everyone was looking at him, and the angel Michael said, "Bontche we are waiting for you. You have suffered so much and you have never complained. For your righteousness God has ordained that you be given whatever you ask for." Bontche was stunned and then he said in his utter humility and simple gratitude, "In that case, if it's true, could I have, please, every day, a hot roll with butter.'' The angels cried in awe for they had never seen such a pure and humble man. God cried, too.
So, my dear J, please know this. Someday God will kiss you on the lips and take your breath away and after that moment the next taste your lips will feel will be a hot roll with butter.
May God bless you for you are truly God's most humble servant.
SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at firstname.lastname@example.org or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.