Lucky Loser

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Contests aren’t really my thing. I don’t buy lottery tickets or wager on sports (or, for that matter, even know much about them; until recently I thought Miami Heat was, well, a straightforward description, with the upper-case “H” a nod to the humidity).

Once, though, nearly thirty years ago, I put my name into play for a truly special prize. It was a long shot, I knew, but the payoff was so unusual and so tempting, I figured (as regular gamblers must do regularly) that, hey, it was a minor investment and could bring a huge return.

All that the investment entailed was sharing some personal and medical information with a government agency. And writing an essay, about why I wanted to travel into space—the prize.

The contest, announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, was open only to teachers, and I hoped that my position teaching Talmud in a Providence, Rhode Island yeshiva high school qualified me. If not, I would invoke the Jewish History classes I taught too. (And I wondered if the administration might somehow know about my vote for Mr. Reagan in 1980.)

I have no clear recollection about what I wrote in my essay but I think it included something about the religious nature of my teaching, my desire to experience the wonders of the universe from a new perspective and relay the same to students, and an appropriate verse or two from Tehillim or Psalms.

Whatever. Amid over 11,000 other entries received for the Teacher in Space Program, mine wasn’t likely to be the one selected. And it wasn’t.

Despite the long odds, though, I was disappointed. “Was it my essay?” I thought, regretting not having secularized it. Maybe the few extra pounds I had confessed to carrying (and carry with me still)? Most likely I just didn’t stand out in any meaningful way from the thousands of other would-be astronauts.

So I nursed my wound, such as it was, consoling myself with the words of the Tannaic-era personality Nachum Ish Gamzu, who would regard every travail with joy, verbalizing his reason with the words “This, too,”—the meaning of the words gam zu—“is for the good.”

You may know the end of the story—at least the story of the Teacher in Space Program. (The end of my story, I thank Hashem daily, hasn’t yet arrived.) The teacher chosen for the space flight was Christa McAuliffe, and she was one of the seven crew members who perished aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, when, 73 seconds into its flight, the craft broke apart over the Atlantic Ocean.

Arriving for an early afternoon class that day, a student told me the terrible news. Like all Americans, I was dumbfounded and deeply saddened. All I thought of at that point was the tragic loss of seven brave souls; I had long put aside the memory of my bid to be the first teacher in space. Only hours later did it dawn that the ill-fated flight was the one that, two years earlier, I had so wanted to take. From there, it was a short mental hop to the realization that my disappointment at having “lost” my bid to be the first teacher in space had been not only silly and childish but, in retrospect, for the good, at least my good.

The truth of “this, too, is for the good” comes most clearly into focus when we come to see it play out in our lives—and if we’re perceptive, we all can see it abundantly. But Nachum Ish Gamzu’s credo applies even when we don’t come to realize how what seemed disappointing or worse was actually for our benefit. We make brachos, blessings, not only on good news but on the opposite as well.

The recent final flight of the U.S. Space Shuttle Program is what recalled my quest to slip the surly bonds of earth, reminding me of Nachum Ish Gamzu’s wise attitude. Now comes the harder task of internalizing the reality of its truth even when the “for the best” might never be perceived within those earthly bonds.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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