By Rebbetzen Shuli Liss, Highgate United Synagogue
A story is told about a Jew, named Jacob, who was sent to Siberia in the awful years of Soviet Russia. There he was forced to work hard for many hours a day with meagre rations and appalling living conditions.
In his work camp, there were other people sentenced to the same back breaking labour, but who seemed to be faring worse than he did.
One day, a fellow worker broke down in tears. He complained to his friend. “I am a top physician. Before I was sent here, I taught 100s of students and cured 1000s of sick patients. I had a luxurious office and ate the finest delicacies every day. I was honoured and revered in the community. Now look at me! I am like a nobody. My life is ruined. I have lost everything.”
Another comrade replied with even more bitterness. “I was even more important than you. I was a top government official with 100s of employees beneath me. I dined at the finest restaurants and hosted many important diplomats around my table. Now, I am reduced to potato scraps, and no one cares to listen to my opinion as I perform this menial labour, exhausted and humiliated every day. Life is unbearable here. I am a nothing.”
As the inmates shared their woes, they noticed Jacob working contentedly in the snow. The physician laughed at him. “I know why you are not miserable! You are a Jew and you were probably living on the streets anyway with no great job and no life. You are not missing your former life, as you were nothing then and are still a nobody here in Siberia.”
Jacob replied as follows.
“Actually, I was also a physician. I worked as a surgeon and my services were sought after across the country. I had a large office and a beautiful home. I too miss my former life.
However, I never defined myself by my work. My sole aim in life is to do the will of God. Wherever I am, it is my job to sanctify His name, by doing the right thing and following His laws. True, the work is so difficult here, and I wish I could return to my former life, but I know that I’m fulfilling my purpose in this world, here in Siberia, too. Therefore, I feel content in myself, no matter what others think of my position or my worth.”
We are currently in the festival of Succot. On Shabbat, we will read the book of Ecclesiastes, where King Solomon shares his reflections on life. He was an extremely wealthy, well respected, and wise king and he described man’s exertions in life as futile!
Having reached the top of the rung in every field, he noted that the view from the top isn’t as great as it seemed. He concludes with the following “The end of the matter, everything having been heard, fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the entire man.” (Kohelet, 13:12)
When I heard this story about Jacob, I found it to be so empowering. Our society lauds publicity, popularity and external accomplishments, which are sometimes short lived and superficial. The Jewish ideology extols the virtue of perfecting our inner world, by imbuing every moment with spirituality. This is possible for anyone; both the top physician and a street cleaner.
As ambassadors of God, we always have a role to play, and our lives can be filled with meaning and purpose, no matter where we are.
As we celebrate Succot this week, may we feel God’s love surround us in this temporary, flimsy structure, and may we find delight and joy as we fulfil our important role, as God’s ambassadors on earth.