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Parshas Masei (5771)

A Swimming Lesson

Every so often in life we see something or hear something that, if taken to heart, has the ability to inspire us to make positive changes in our lives. It could be the words of a random stranger sitting next to us on the subway train on the way to work, or possibly an inspiring You Tube video we chance upon while surfing the net, or maybe the innocent remark of our three-year-old child during carpool, etc.

Some would call it coincidence. The Torah calls it Hashgachah Pratis – Divine Providence. According to Jewish tradition, everything that happens to us doesn’t just ‘happen’ randomly – is it actually a message from G-d that we need to take in and absorb, and which can change our lives in some small or big way. All we need to do is to be open and receptive to these messages when they come our way.

One classic example of someone who knew how to read these ‘Divine messages’ carefully is the story of the founder of the Mussar (Character Refinement) Movement in the 19th Century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, and the shoemaker (as told by Rabbi Dov Katz, in his classic work Tenuas HaMussar):

Late one night, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter walked past the home of an old shoemaker, and noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. "Why are you still working," he asked. "It is very late and soon that candle will go out." The shoemaker replied, "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." Rabbi Salanter spent that entire night excitedly pacing his room and repeating to himself: "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." The human soul is compared to a candle: “Ner Ado-noy Nishmas Adam – A man’s soul is the lamp [candle] of G-d …." (Proverbs 20:27). From the simple shoemaker, Rabbi Salanter took the message never to give up. As long as the candle is burning you can still make repairs. As long as there's life, there's still time to make spiritual repairs as well. We can still do Teshuvah – make positive changes in our lives - and set right all the things that are wrong.

Well, wouldn’t you know it! … This week I came across an amazing story in the news with an incredible message that I personally took to heart, and which I would Iike to share with all of you:

Miraculous Escape: Pilot Survives 18 Hours After Plane Crash Into Lake

A NY auto mechanic survived for nearly 18 hours adrift in Lake Huron without a life jacket after his small two-seat Cessna crashed 17 miles from the Michigan shoreline, reports Daily Mail Online. Michael Trapp, 42, was rescued by boaters who noticed him waving his socks at them. Trapp was flying from New York to Chippewa Falls, Wis., for a family reunion when a fuel problem caused his engine to sputter and give away. He reported a mayday before losing contact with the Federal Aviation Administration around 5 p.m. on Tuesday. "He ended up stalling the airplane into the lake, with the engine not running. Upon impact, the airplane flipped over," said Huron County Chief Kelly Hanson in a statement according to ABC news reports. "He then escaped the airplane as it sank seconds later." Trapp had to take off his pants and shoes to stay afloat and had to brave the high waves off Michigan's east Coast. Trapp believes he swam 15 miles towards the shore before being rescued by people aboard a boat called Eagle's Nest at 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. Apart from a chill, Trapp seemed quite fine and was talking when an ambulance took him to a local hospital. He was later transferred to Covenant HealthCare in Saginaw and listed in good condition. (by IBTimes Staff Reporter)

Wow! What an amazing story of survival against all odds! How can someone possibly stay afloat like that for over 17 hours?! However, what inspired me most about this story – and which I believe is the Divine message that we need to hear - is what Mr. Trapp told a local TV station while recovering in the hospital. He said that while he is not physically fit at 5 feet 10 inches and 200 pounds and is a bad swimmer, he fought to survive because "there's a lot of people that depend on me."

With these words, Michael Trapp taught us all a profound ‘swimming’ lesson– and one that can carry us through all the crazy ups and downs we encounter in life.

You see, sometimes the waters of life are very choppy – i.e. things are going badly for us, be it a broken relationship, the loss of a job, unfulfilled dreams, dealing with a difficult illness or depression – and we feel like giving up, letting go, and drowning ourselves in misery and self-pity.

It is at these trying times in our lives that we need to remember what helped pull Michael Trapp through as he fought to stay afloat for 17 hours on the cold, choppy waters of Lake Huron … that “there’s a lot of people that depend on us”. We have family – parents, grandparents, cousins, siblings and children - that care about us and need us. We have friends and neighbors who count on us. We have things that we still need to do which can benefit others around us – even things as little as smiling every morning at the crossing guard and making her feel good or visiting the old people at the local nursing home. Most importantly, G-d depends on us and needs us. After all, He put us here on Planet Earth for a purpose – some unique mission that we need to fulfill and which no one else can.

So no matter how bleak things get, we need to hang in there and to never let go – if not for our own sake, then for all the people (and G-d) in our lives who ‘depend’ on us in some small or big way.

May G-d give us the wisdom to pick up on all the Divine messages He sends our way, and may we merit taking them to heart, thus changing our lives for the better.

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