Beit Midrash

  • Jewish Laws and Thoughts
  • Trial and Difficulties in Life
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

One of the truly major challenges of life is dealing with disappointment. In fact one can state that a great percentage of our living experience is taken up with dealing with the omnipresent feelings of disappointment that we experience in our social, family and national life and happenings. The Talmud teaches us that no human being leaves this world having even half of one’s hopes and desires completely fulfilled. This is not merely meant as a testimony to our insatiable feelings of greed and acquisitiveness. It expresses the fact that we are doomed to disappointment in our lives and that this feeling of frustration and disappointment is unlimited - it extends to every facet of our life’s experiences. It also expresses the deeper disappointment that we feel in ourselves for our past errors of commission and omission. It is really this sense of disappointment that exists within our psyches and souls that creates the field of mental health therapy and makes it almost a necessity for so many of us. Disappointment spawns depression on one hand and anger, aggression and violence on the other hand. Because of this stark fact the great task in life is how to deal with disappointment and this is true again at every level of life - family, profession, the work place, government and international relations. Wars are born out of uncontrolled disappointment with the status quo. Witness the debacle of World War I and the havoc that it wreaked on humankind. Sometimes the feelings of disappointment are justified but in most instances it is the frustration that disappointment engenders that drives individuals and nations to behave wrongly, irrationally and eventually destructively.

In my long decades of rabbinic experience I have noticed how children are disappointed in their parents, parents are disappointed in their children, spouses are disappointed with each other, synagogue members are disappointed with their rabbi and rabbis are disappointed with their congregations, in-laws are disappointed with in-laws and this type of list grows endless. Part of the reason for this prevailing sense of disappointment is the presence within us of originally too high expectations. In counseling young couples trying to get past the rough patches of their recent marriage I have always noticed the presence of unreasonably high expectations of each other as being the root of the problem. Life should be approached with high optimism but also with minimal expectations. The Talmud in one of its famous statements teaches: "Why should humans complain and be disappointed? Is it not sufficient that one is still alive?" Reality will always clash with our hopes and plans and feelings of entitlement. The great current Hebrew phrase zeh mah sheyesh - this is the reality of the situation that we face - is the touchstone of Jewish survival and accomplishment over the ages.

If there ever is a people entitled, so to speak, to feel cheated and disappointed it is the Jewish people, hated, hounded and persecuted for centuries on end. Yet, the feeling of disappointment in its unrealized destiny and the Jewish fate and situation generally never was allowed to take hold in Jewish life. And this resistance to allowing the emotion of disappointment to overwhelm our lives extended to the Jewish home and family as well. The Jew was born with lofty ambitions and hopes for spiritual greatness coupled with a lowered level of expectation in worldly matters. Divorce was much rarer in Jewish society than it is today though that does not necessarily mean that all marriages were happy and smooth relationships. But minimizing expectations helped build homes and families on solid foundations. The drive for excessive wealth was also tempered - nevertheless poverty is not a virtue in Jewish life and thought - but standards of living were moderate even when one had the money to live in a grander style. The differences in wealth and grandeur were minimized in Jewish society and this helped squelch a general feeling of disappointment in one’s self or in life generally. Judaism always preached that less is more in all facets of life. Such an attitude will undoubtedly minimize disappointments, which by the way will nevertheless always still occur for that is the stuff that life is made up of.

The month of Elul is a good time for us to deal with our disappointments in life and help minimize if not even dissipate many of them. Forgiveness of others and of ourselves as well is the entry gate to true repentance, mental health and ultimate salvation. Forgiveness is a way to deal with disappointment. It does not eliminate the feeling but it allows one to move on and deal with it in a more positive fashion. This is an important Elul idea to keep in mind and to attempt to implement it in our daily lives year round.
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