A Hasidic rabbi asked a member of his congregation: “If you are going east and suddenly you want to travel west, how far do you have to go?” The man gave him many complex answers, but the rabbi answered simply, “If you are going east and you want to go west, all you have to do is turn around! It’s as simple as that!”
As simple as that. Is it really? I suspect that, when most of us get down to the serious work of changing our lives for the better—because that is, of course the kind of turning to which the rabbi of the story refers—we find it a great deal harder than he makes it sound.
Here’s a different and much more recent story which may ring more true, and may help us in our own struggles to change, even one little bit of ourselves. Here is the brief puzzling account of what happened on January 25, 2012 at 11 a.m. in Glendale California, in the words of the Los Angeles Times of the next day:
Woman drives Mercedes 70 mph down Verdugo Wash
January 26, 2012
Police and fire crews are trying to remove a Mercedes sedan from the concrete-lined portion of the Verdugo Wash after an elderly woman apparently got confused and mistook it for an entrance to a freeway.
The woman apparently drove into the wash at Glenoaks Boulevard and Kenilworth Road in Glendale about 11 a.m. She drove through the water and several stopped portions of the channel while reaching speeds of about 70 mph, officials said.
The woman finally stopped near San Fernando Road after being hailed down by maintenance workers, who she whizzed past at freeway speeds, police Sgt. Tom Lorenz told the Glendale News-Press.
"Right now it's unexplainable," he said.
The woman, whose identity and age were not immediately available, was taken to a nearby hospital for evaluation.
Well, the mystery never really cleared up. The driver was taken to a hospital, where she tested negative for alcohol or drugs, or any illness that could explain her driving behavior. Her insurance company paid to have the car lifted out of the wash, so there was no reason for the city to charge her with anything. She did not have to make a statement and as far as I know, she never did. She drove nearly a mile down the channel, taking several drops of three feet each, and coming perilously close to landing in the Los Angeles River. She had a very narrow escape, and I’m sure everyone who read this story was wondering how she could have gone so wrong
When I am working, I drive past the corner of Glenoaks and Kenilworth at least twice a day, and sometimes more often. I examined the area, because there was something about this story that fascinated me. Next to the church on the corner is a double metal fence, which workers had mistakenly left open when the woman drove in. The entrance is a gentle slope down, and I see how it could have been mistaken, at first, for a freeway entrance, or more likely, for the other reason the news offered for her driving in there, an entrance to the church parking lot. However, once she was in the wash, there could be no mistake. It looks nothing like a freeway or a parking lot. There is a channel of water flowing down the middle of the concrete. There were no other cars, and yet she continued on at freeway speeds, even passing workers who tried to stop her. At first, I assumed that she kept on going because the channel was too narrow for her to turn the car around, but as soon as I saw it, I knew that was wrong. There was more than enough room to turn a car around, even a Mercedes. Then I really started to wonder. Why did she go on? Why didn’t she realize she had made a mistake and stop, or go slowly, or ask the workers she saw for help? Why on earth didn’t she just turn the car around and go out the same way she’d come in? The answers never appeared. The driver was permitted her privacy, even to not having to reveal her name publicly, and I don’t blame her for taking advantage of that.
It is very unlikely we will ever find ourselves in the physical circumstances in which this driver found herself, but I see it as an apt metaphor for the way our spiritual lives sometimes go. We know we are miserable at the job where we spend at least 40 hours a week, and that we would be happier working somewhere else, but we keep barreling along, afraid to make a change. We continually promise ourselves that we will be kinder to those we love, but we get tired or angry or afraid and our tempers flare. We say we will not abuse our bodies with unhealthy food, or with alcohol or drugs, but the next time our wills are weak, there we are, driving our spiritual Mercedes down the Verdugo wash, too frightened to stop, too lost to ask for help, too discouraged to turn around. . This is when we need a Hasidic rabbi standing beside us saying, “all you have to do is turn around! It’s as simple as that!”
This is what Yom Kippur is for, and what it is about. We take a day off from our ordinary lives, and we spend it in contemplation, in self-reflection. We refrain from our usual daily activities, including the essentials of food and drink. May this day find you able to stop driving 70 mph to nowhere, to find the wisdom of slowing down, of listening to others, of being able to hear the voice saying, “All you have to do is turn around! It’s as simple as that!”.