God Gave Us Lemons for a Reason

Turning Them Into Sweet Lemonade Can Be Worthy Exercise

kurt hoffman

By Lenore Skenazy

Published March 16, 2012, issue of March 23, 2012.
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Does every cloud have a silver lining? Or are plenty of them filled with rain that slickens the highway and jackknifes the tractor-trailer?

There’s really no way to answer the question, because what if that tractor-trailer snarls traffic, making the lady 17 cars behind it late for her interview? And what if that means she doesn’t get the job and she’s so depressed she stops at her favorite bakery, where she runs into her high school boyfriend, recently divorced, who’s always carried a torch for her and is about to sell his startup, called Zappos? What I mean is: Do we live in a gam zu l’tovah world or not?

Gam zu l’tovah is a Hebrew expression that translates roughly to “Even this is for the best” — “this” being some rotten thing one is enduring, from a D in physics to a lawnmower-leg accident. Its origins seem traceable to Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, who went by the name Nahum Gamzu.

And so there’s a famous story (well, famous once you start Googling “gam zu l’tovah”) about how Rabbi Akiva went to a town where, as in either all ancient parables or inns, there were no rooms to be had. Unfazed, he camped out in the woods with his donkey, rooster and candle — whereupon a fox ate his rooster, a lion ate the donkey and the wind blew out his candle. Akiva figured this was God’s will.

Day dawns, and it turns out the entire town had been sacked in the night. Had Akiva’s rooster crowed, donkey brayed or candle shone bright, the sackers would have noticed him, too. So — you get the point.

It’s a perspective that can be very comforting, this idea that we DON’T have perspective when misery hits. And when I started asking around for gam zu l’tovah stories, everyone seemed to have one. Laid off twice in eight months, Eileen Roth decided to become her own boss — a professional organizer. Now she’s the author of “Organizing for Dummies.” Barry Maher left his job after a humiliating pay dispute, but was hired back as a consultant for more money. Second-year med school student Daniel Kalla was taking the test he needed to pass to be promoted. He’d never failed a test before. He failed that one. Depressed and terrified, he studied hard all summer and not only aced the do-over, but he feels he’s a more attentive doctor to this day.

And those are just the job stories. Then there’s sickness! Antoinette Kurnitz was filling up her tank at the gas station when the hose broke off the handle, drenching her in gasoline. “Burned my lungs severely, staph infections all over my body, was told that all had been done that could be done, that I was going to die from it,” she said. Her reaction was to get a job in a bookstore. “I loved books, and if I was going to die, it would be among them,” she said.


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