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Parshas Shoftim (5770)

Life Lessons I Learned from my GPS

By Rabbi David Zauderer

We just returned from a two-week trip to NY/NJ where we visited family and friends, and let me tell you ... a ten-hour ride (two ways) in a minivan crammed with seven kids and luggage and food (and G-d knows what else my wife packed in there) is no walk in the park. Even the border guard at Niagara Falls, after peeking inside the van, called me a “brave man”. Which makes it all the more ironic that people were honking at us and giving us the thumbs-up the entire trip back to Toronto because my oldest daughter had written on our minivan’s rear windshield in bright yellow letters the words: Smile! Life is Great! U are 2 Blessed 2B Stressed!

But the one thing that made the trip a little easier was the fact that we brought Goldie along with us – and although she kept on yapping throughout the entire trip, telling me what to do and where to go – she was still very helpful. Goldie Perel Sheinfeld – we just call her ‘Goldie’ but she is better known by her initials G.P.S. – taught me the proper path to take to reach my destination, and for that I am forever grateful (although I personally think she should lose the British accent).

[What does the acronym GPS really stand for anyway? I searched online and found a couple of possibilities – none of which made sense for a traffic navigation unit – such as: Ghana Police Service, General Problem Solver, and German Potato Salad, until I found the most likely acronym – Global Positioning System.]

All kidding aside, the GPS is truly a remarkable piece of technology that provides much needed trip information and directions to millions of people across the globe – and also provides Rabbis like me with great material for our Torah e-mails.

Goldie, the GPS gal, taught me three simple, but powerful, life lessons that are appropriate for the month of Elul and the upcoming High Holidays, and which I would like to share with you:

1) Somebody up there is watching our every move. Looking at that little car on the map on the GPS screen that moved whenever my van moved made me realize (I guess it’s obvious) that there is a satellite flying around high up in the sky that knows my car’s exact coordinates at all times and tracks exactly where I am going. Kinda scary, isn’t it? The truth is that even when our GPS is turned off, we are still being watched and tracked at all times by another, far more powerful GPSG-d’s Providence and Surveillance. G-d sees and records our every move, and we will have to answer for our actions on the Day of Judgment – so we had better be careful about the moves we make.

There is a story told about the great sage known as the Chafetz Chaim who was once traveling in a wagon when the driver spotted an orchard by the side of the road, full of tempting, ripe fruit. "Wait here for a minute," the driver said, jumping out of the coach, "I'm going to pick some fruit." The he turned to his passenger and instructed him: "Stand guard and tell me if anyone comes by!" The driver hadn't plucked a single apple when the venerable rabbi shouted, "He's watching! He's watching!" Terrified, the wagon driver bolted and ran with lightning speed to the coach. Panting, out of breath, he cast a furtive glance behind him, afraid of being apprehended by the observer. But there was not a soul in sight. "You lied to me!" he yelled at the Chafetz Chaim. "There's no one around!" "Of course there is," the rabbi insisted. "The One Above is everywhere, always watching, and He sees everything."

2) Nobody’s perfect. We were driving along the confusing side roads of some random town in upstate NY – with the expert guidance of our trusty GPS, of course – when my wife commented out of the blue, “Wow! That GPS knows everything! How brilliant it is!” A second later, the GPS commanded with its usual confidence - “Turn Right here” - and landed us in a Dead End! We all burst into laughter – realizing that even the GPS can make really dumb mistakes sometimes.

You know what they say: No one is perfect … that’s why pencils have erasers. Everyone makes mistakes – even great people whom everyone thinks are perfect make mistakes. And that’s perfectly okay. In fact, the entire forty-day period starting from the beginning of the month of Elul (which was this Wednesday August 11th) and ending at the Neilah Prayer Service on Yom Kippur was given to us by G-d for us to reflect on our actions of the previous year and to make amends and do teshuvah (repentance) precisely because He knows better than anyone that as human beings we sometimes make mistakes.

3) If you take the wrong turn, recalculate. One thing that truly amazed me about the GPS is that it never gives up. No matter how many times during the trip I mistakenly went the wrong way (don’t tell Goldie, but sometimes I purposely ignored her commands just to see her reaction), the GPS kept on recalculating, coming up with a different way of getting me to where I needed to go. And that, my friends, is really the key to doing teshuvah and effecting successful change in our lives. If we mistakenly (or even willfully) take a spiritual “wrong turn” in life, we need to recalculate and come up with new and creative strategies to overcome the challenges facing us.

Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the famous 16th-Century Kabbalist in Tzefas, wrote in his classic work Tomer Devorah:

The Talmud (Menachos 29b) asks regarding the Hebrew letter Hei: “Why is it shaped like a porch? So that anyone who wants to go astray from his world can do so!” The explanation of this is as follows: The physical world was created with the letter Hei, for the Holy One, Blessed is He, created the world as such that it is wide-open to evil and sin. There is no direction where earthliness, the evil inclination, and blemishes of the soul are absent! It is just like a porch, which is not fully fenced; rather, it has a huge breach on the bottom toward evil. Anyone who desires to leave his world has many exits; wherever he turns, he will find an aspect of sin or transgression through which he can enter the domain of the Outside Forces. And yet, the letter Hei also has a gap at the top left corner, symbolizing that if the sinner repents he will be accepted by G-d. The Sages asked, “Why shouldn’t he reenter the same path through which he left? Our Sages answer: Because this way will not help him enough in his repentance.” Meaning, that it is not enough for a repentant sinner to guard himself against sin the same way a perfectly righteous person does. A saint who has not sinned requires only a minor barrier, whereas for a repentant sinner, a small barrier is insufficient – he needs a number of tough restraints. The reason being, since this minor barrier was already breached once, if he approaches it, his evil urge will easily seduce him again. Therefore, he must further himself a great distance, and not reenter the porch at the breached side. Rather, he should ascend and enter the narrow gap at the top of the Hei, representing the restraints and penances he accepts upon himself in mending the broken fence, and he should enter through there.

Although much of what Rabbi Cordevero writes can only be understood on a mystical level, the essence of his teaching is that one cannot simply fix a character flaw or negative behavior by saying “From now on, I will be better”. That just won’t work in most cases. What is required is to ‘recalculate’ and come up with an entirely different and creative approach.

For example, if you find yourself constantly speaking lashon hara (negative speech) and badmouthing your co-workers or your boss at the water cooler, you might consider staying at your desk during your break, or maybe even changing jobs. Or maybe your challenge is that you find yourself constantly frustrated and yelling at your wife/husband or your kids. Putting signs around the house with the words “Stop Yelling!” probably won’t do the job. What is needed is a total recalculation of your life and a thorough examination of the root causes of your anger and frustration. You can then create a new approach which will help you deal with the problem.

These are just some of the life lessons that I learned from my friend Goldie Perel Sheinfeld. I hope you enjoyed them.

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