The story is told that Itzhak Perlman once came on stage to play a violin concerto. Having contracted polio at age 4, greatly impacting his ability to walk, he made his way across the stage laboriously using his crutches. He laid the crutches down, picked up his Soil Stradivarius and began tuning the instrument. All of a sudden a string broke. Instead of sending for another string, he motioned to the conductor to begin, and he played the concerto on three strings.
At the end of the performance, Itzhak took the microphone and shared a message with the crowd. What he said most certainly summarizes his life: “Our task is to make music with what remains.”
In other words, don’t let hardships take you down. Learn to live a full life despite the many setbacks that come your way.
Viktor Frankl, in his best-selling book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” suggests a different approach: “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation. … For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement.”
Frankl is suggesting that we may not choose the circumstances we find ourselves in, but we can certainly decide to create meaning in any situation in which we find ourselves.
However, there is a third approach taught to us by King David. In one of the most moving Psalms that he authored, Psalm 121, King David writes: “I look up to the mountains, where will my help come from?”
When King David refers to mountains he undoubtedly means the challenges of his life. His family accused him of not being Jewish, his father-in-law wanted to kill him, his son-in-law tried to throw him off the throne. His life was full of tsoris [suffering].
In the following verse he writes: “My help comes from God.” And although that seems rather straightforward, King David adds a few key words, “My help comes from God, the creator of heaven and earth.”
I believe that King David is teaching us a profound insight as to how he never lost hope and how he was able to push forward despite those difficulties. What gave him the strength to overcome his challenges was the knowledge that those “mountains,” the countless challenges that he faced, were placed there by the One who made the heavens and earth. King David recognized that God is the source of those challenges, and therefore they must have a purpose.
That is not only comforting, it’s also invigorating. When we are aware of the fact that our challenges are God-made and they are therefore there for a reason, we don’t need to sidestep the challenges in life nor do we have to create meaning. If God created the challenges that we face that means the meaning is already there. The challenges have been placed before us for us to overcome them.
May God give us the strength to overcome the challenges that we face. Equipped with the knowledge that He has placed them before us for a reason, there is no mountain we cannot overcome.
Rabbi Yisrael Motzen is the spiritual leader of Ner Tamid Congregation in Mount Washington.