Parashat Va'ethanan- It’s All Good
Parashat Va’ethanan contains the first paragraph of the Shema, which we recite each day, and this paragraph includes the command, "You shall love Hashem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." The Mishna in Masechet Berachot (54) understands this command to mean that one is obligated to bless Hashem for bad fortune just as one is obligated to thank Him for good fortune. We must love Hashem and feel grateful to Him under all circumstances, even when our situation seems bad.
Why must we thank Hashem for misfortune?
Rabbenu Yona, in his commentary to Masechet Berachot, writes that misfortune brings us atonement for our misdeeds. Nobody is perfect, and even the most righteous among us make mistakes for which we need to atone. Achieving atonement through misfortune here in this world is far preferable to having to earn atonement through suffering in the next world. A flat tire, a stock that nosedives, the flu, and even, Heaven forbid, more serious misfortunes are "pennies on the dollar" with which we pay the "debt" we owe for our wrongdoing.
The Rambam, in his commentary to the Mishna, gives another reason for why we need to be thankful for misfortune, citing the famous Rabbinic adage, "Kol Ma D’abid Rahamana Le’tab Abid" – "Everything Hashem does is done for the best." Very often, we experience events which seem disastrous, but later turn out to have been great blessings in disguise. I know personally of several individuals who lost their jobs and were heartbroken and devastated, but then landed other positions which were far more profitable.
The Shema begins with the famous Pasuk, "Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokenu Hashem Ehad" – "Hear, O Israel, Hashem our G-d – Hashem is one." This verse makes mention of both Names of G-d – "Hashem" (the Name of "Havaya"), and "Elokim." The Name of "Havaya" signifies G-d’s kindness and compassion, whereas "Elokim" represents the aspect of strict justice, Hashem’s punishing us and bringing upon us hardship. In this Pasuk we declare that "Hashem" and "Elokenu" are actually one and the same – "Hashem Ehad." Even "Elokenu" is really "Hashem." The difference is only in our perception; we perceive some things as good and others as bad, but the truth is that "Hashem Ehad" – there is only one G-d, who does only goodness.
This is why it is customary to close our eyes when we recite this verse. The world is very misleading. When we look around us, we see a great deal of misfortune and suffering. In order to truly believe that "Hashem Ehad," we need to "close our eyes," to remind ourselves that the misfortune we see is only a mirage, and one day it will become clear that everything Hashem does is for the best.
There is a well-known story of a Hasid who asked his Rabbi to help him build this belief, that everything Hashem does is good. It is so difficult to live with this faith, that even the seemingly unfortunate events that we experience are actually for our benefit, and so this Hasid turned to his Rabbi for help. The Rabbi told the Hasid that there is only one man who can teach him how to reach this level of faith, and that is the famous Reb Zushe of Anapoli.
And so, the Hasid embarked on a trip to visit Reb Zushe. When he arrived at Reb Zushe’s home, he was startled to see that the great Sadik lived in a dilapidated residence, in a state of abject poverty. He knocked on the door, and explained to Reb Zushe that his Rabbi sent him there to learn how to develop the belief that everything Hashem does is good, even when one endures hardship and suffering.
"I’m afraid I cannot help you with that," Reb Zushe apologetically replied. "I’ve never experienced any misfortune in my life. Everything in my life is wonderful."
Of course, this is a very high level which takes many, many years of hard work to achieve. But this is something that we must all work on, each on his or her level. It starts with appreciating everything we have, by focusing on all that is good rather than on what is not, and by recognizing that even that which seems bad will, one day, turn out to have been for the best.
This is the message of the daily Shema – the daily proclamation we make affirming that ultimately there is no distinction between "Hashem" and "Elokenu," because it is all one, and it is all good.