When I was four, I announced that I wanted to be Jewish. When I was 19, I finally made it happen. This is as good an example as any for how I’ve lived my life thus far: set a goal and achieve it, whatever the odds and whomever the adversaries. I can be quite single-minded in attaining whatever heights I’ve decided are absolutely necessary. Some people call this “focus”; less charitable folks deem it “bull-headedness.”
The upside of this way of moving through the world is that you become very accomplished. The walls of my childhood bedroom are lined with trophies, ribbons, and certificates celebrating my prowess in piano, singing, theater, and debate. (The “participation” trophies for soccer and softball are somewhat less impressive.) My high school transcript could be a guide to available Advanced Placement examinations, and my college résumé is a list of Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, and all sorts of other Very Impressive Foreign Word accolades. I won admission to some of the top law schools in the country, and when I decided that the rabbinate was where my future lay, I willed myself into school despite lacking the necessary Hebrew and Talmud credentials. I’m very persuasive in an interview.
There is, of course, a downside to this kind of focus: failure. When you are so convinced of your power to achieve any goal and meet any challenge, your failures are devastating. Everyone is disappointed when presented with failure, but a person like me is also shocked.
To suddenly be met with something immoveable, with a situation you cannot alter or a mind you cannot change, is an unfathomable thing for a person like me. And when you come to that place, meet that wall? Past experience tells you that you can scale it. You cannot get a toehold and tumble back down to earth. So you decide to be creative in your problem solving (such good skills you have!) and try to knock it down. You bruise your hands, you crack your skull. No? That didn’t work? Tunnel! You scratch at the ground until your fingers bleed and the dust chokes you.
You’ll stay there for weeks, months, even years, staring at this place of your failure, unable to accept that there is something you cannot do. It is impossible to move on. This is called denial.
Sometime after denial comes acceptance, I hear. And yet, I think that acceptance is never quite possible for someone like me. We look back, we replay the moments, we analyze every move from every angle, and eventually, we find what we choose as the deciding moment. If only I hadn’t gone to that party…if only I hadn’t said that sentence…if only he had never met her…if only my mother hadn’t been sick…and it becomes something we could have controlled. To accept that the universe– and other people and circumstances– can have the power to make us fail is terrifying. It is unacceptable.
What I am coming– painfully– to understand about the world is that I cannot apply logic to all of its parts. For some reason, other people who see the same facts and understand my line of reasoning will not come to my conclusions. I am persuasive, I am eloquent, I am convincing, but they are unmovable. I will calmly explain, then anxiously defend, then pathetically plead my case, and though I am right (says my brain), they are unmoved. How does someone like me defend herself against something illogical, something random?
I find myself asking this question throughout the Torah. Once God has laid out God’s laws, the message is pretty clear, and usually, punishments for transgressions follow the rules. But earlier? The God of Genesis loves Jacob but not Esau, favors Abel over Cain, and wants humans not to acquire knowledge in the Garden of Eden. How to please this God? How to anticipate the needs and desires of someone who does not tell you why this one is beloved and the other is not? Our rabbis have midrashim [stories and teachings] to explain this God, but the pshat [literal reading] of the text is clear: we are powerless.
The easiest thing, of course, is to accept my failures as someone else’s. That is, if I fail to impress a potential employer, it is really his failure and his loss. This, though, is equally impossible. Instead, I stare at the wall.