Shaarei Shamayim

A Place of Comfort, Companionship and Healing




Today’s parsha is about the life journeys of Father Abraham. Abraham takes the journey of his life when he follows Gd’s command, Lech l’cha…el haaretz asher er-eka, which Rashi translates as, “Go for yourself…to the land that I will show you.” No sooner does he get there then there’s a famine and he has to go down to Egypt. In Egypt his wife, Sarah is taken captive by Pharaoh, but in the end they manage to leave unscathed. Later his nephew Lot is taken captive and Abraham goes to war against much larger forces to rescue him. He gains the respect of everyone around him even as he spreads the word of Gd. Abraham’s life journey is filled with adventure, danger and excitement—most of it unplanned.


Later in the story, his concubine Hagar, that Sarah gave to him to have a surrogate child for her, runs away. She encounters an angel who tells her not to fear and to return to Abraham because from her will come a great nation. She’s grateful and calls that place, B’eyr lachai ro-ee, which means, “Oasis to my life’s vision.”


“Oasis to my life’s vision”: I’ve been thinking about that phrase all week. I’ve searched the commentaries, but I couldn’t find an explanation that satisfied me and so I decided to give it a try and here’s what I came up with. We all have a vision of our life-journeys and the paths that we should follow—a vision of how our lives should look 6 months from now, a year from now, 5 years from now. But sometimes life doesn’t proceed as planned and we have to pause at an oasis of sorts and re-adjust that vision.


That’s what happened last May to Nadav Ben-Yehuda—a 24-year-old Israeli law student—who dreamt of being the youngest Israeli to conquer the world’s highest peak—Mt. Everest. It was a long and hard climb for Nadav, and just when he was only 300 meters from the summit he abandoned his plans when he saw Aydin Irmak, a Turkish climber, lying unconscious on the ground. He didn’t hesitate for a second. He later said: “If I had continued climbing, he would have died for certain. Other climbers just passed him by and didn’t lift a finger, but I had no second thoughts. I knew that I had to save him…I didn’t think for a second about politics—the fact that he was Turkish and I was Israeli.”


As an aspiring professional mountain climber, conquering Mt. Everest was a priority for Nadav’s life-vision. But he adjusted that vision for the higher life-vision of being a life saver. Nadav understood that the purpose of his life that day was not to reach the Summit, but to save a life along the way.


This is also what happened to Henri Landwirth. Along with his mother, father, and sister, Henri was taken to Nazi concentration camps—including Auschwitz—when he was just 13. His life-vision was suddenly crushed. His parents soon died and after 5 years of staving off starvation and disease he was dragged in front of a firing squad days before the war was to end. But his would-be executioners—for some unexplained reason—lowered their rifles and told him to run. “I was supposed to die,” said Henri who regards his life from that day on as a “miracle.” At the end of the war, he emigrated from his native Belgium to the U.S. with just $20 in his pocket and he began a new life-vision. He worked his way up from bellboy in the hospitality industry to eventually become franchise owner of 7 Holiday Inns in Central Florida.


In 1986 he redefined his life-vision again when the family of a critically ill 6-year-old girl, scheduled to stay at one of his hotels, canceled a vacation. The child had died with her final wish—to meet Mickey Mouse—unfulfilled. Henri vowed to cut through the red tape of wish foundations that delayed this girl’s final wish and created “Give Kids The World Foundation.” By 1989, he began building the foundation’s Village. Today the foundation works with more than 300 wish foundations and hospitals around the world. And “rush wishes” happen every single week, with arrangements made overnight to bring a child. No child is ever made to wait until it is too late. Give Kids The World Foundation takes care of everything for a weeklong stay—lodging, theme park tickets, rental car and food—all free.


Today the Village has doubled in size and has hosted more than 56,000 families from 50 countries around the world. Henri Landwirth, now 85, said, “I never had any control over my life as a child. I think that is what inspired me to do what I’m doing—to thank you for this life I have. And with Gd’s help, I’ll be able to continue serving...for as long as I’m needed.” He understands that we need to be ready to adjust our life’s visions…because if we stubbornly hold on to our old life-visions when life pulls us in other directions, we’ll get stuck and miss out on life’s new opportunities. (With thanks to Rabbi Brian Glusman who share this story with me.)  


So as we travel along our journeys in life, we should ask ourselves over and over again: What should my life-vision be now? How do I behave in a way that reflects the fact that I am an image of Gd? How do I behave in a way to bring meaning to my life? How do I act in a way which brings honor to myself, my family and Gd?


It may sound cliché but are clichés because they’re true: Life is a journey and death a destination.  It’s the journey which is important. The key is not achieving our life-visions, but how we adjust to the curve balls life throws us along the way—how we adjust our life-visions.


Moses never achieved his life-vision of bringing the Jewish people into the Promised Land. He begged God to at least allow him to set foot in the Holy Land. But it was not to be. And yet Moses, in leading a 40-year journey through the wilderness, built a nation and changed the course of human history. It’s also true for each and every one of us. What’s important is not whether we achieve all our life-visions. What’s important is what we accomplish along the way.


So when life throws you curve, whether it’s a serious illness, the loss of a loved one, a setback in your financial condition or a pleasant surprise in the repair of a relationship or an increase in your portfolio, be inspired by Abraham and Moses, by Nadav Ben-Yehuda and Henri Landwirth and lift  up your chin, straighten your back and go with the curve. As any player in this week’s World Series will tell you, going with the curve is the only way you can hit it out of the park. Amen!


                                                Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis


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