In My Own Write: Reversals of fortune

Try the power of the unexpected

Surfer doing a headstand 390 (photo credit: Reuters)
Surfer doing a headstand 390
(photo credit: Reuters)
A curious snippet in this newspaper last week entitled “Moroccan jailed for raising Israeli flag” seemed, on reflection, quite appropriate in the run-up to Purim with its traditional aspect of nahafochu – a reversal of the expected.
For while one may see, during this week’s carnival-like festivities, the occasional Israeli decked out in Arab costume, complete with keffiyeh, few people in today’s larger Arab world would have any truck with a symbol of the Jewish state – except, perhaps, to trample and burn it.
Thus there was something astonishing – even in Morocco, a relatively tolerant environment for Jews – about the action of Muhammad, an itinerant vegetable seller.
According to the brief report, this sole breadwinner of his family was in dire straits after his water and electricity were cut off. So what did he do? “In a desperate bid to grab authorities’ attention over his family’s unsanitary living conditions,” he hoisted an Israeli flag over his house.
The authorities responded, rather predictably, by arresting the hapless vendor and charging him with sacrilege, to the huge dismay of his family.
WAS MUHAMMAD a disturbed individual acting out of desperation, or a rational being taking a calculated risk? We don’t know. But it is fascinating to speculate – helped by a dose of Purim nahafochu and a touch of fantasy – on the motive behind his singular act.
Arab peoples kept in ignorance by their governments about the real Israel are reared on a diet of knee-jerk hostility and contempt for the Jewish state and its inhabitants, mixed with an exaggerated respect and awe of their achievements. Out of this awkward mix rises a popular Arab view of Israelis as larger-than-life creatures possessing extraordinary powers.
This being the case, who knows what feats such mythical beings can perform, if they so choose? Perhaps even – when conjured up, like genies from a bottle, by the raising of their flag – the rescue of a lowly vegetable vendor from his sorry plight?
THE IDEA of nahafochu – a reversal of the expected and accepted – in the Purim story is central to the victory of the Jews over their enemies. The evil Haman, who hopes to “wipe the Jews off the map,” plans magnificent honors for himself, then finds himself compelled to bestow them on the hated Jew Mordechai. Gleefully, egged on by his nasty wife, he constructs gallows for Mordechai, but ends up hanged, along with his 10 sons, on those very same gallows.
The Purim story with its welcome reversals is familiar to every Jewish child.
But the concept of nahafochu can resonate within us long after Purim has come and gone. Not by turning, for turning’s sake, the content of our lives upside down like some demonic cleaning woman let loose, but by sometimes doing the opposite of what is expected of us, and ending up the better for it.
There are those who take nahafochu literally – like David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. He had a penchant for physical fitness, and famously would stand on his head at an advanced age. He lived until he was 87.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about our natural human fear of change and about finding the courage to overcome it, citing my European teacher friend who has – temporarily, at least – turned her back on the tried and tested path of her fellow retirees back home.
She has now arrived in Israel to embark on a very different existence as a volunteer, and on meeting her after her arrival, I was struck by her inner sparkle.
Her “nahafochu” – giving up her apartment, putting her belongings in storage and, essentially, rolling up her life at an age when many are ready to relax and live at a more leisurely pace – wasn’t easily achieved, but it has visibly imbued her with a new energy and youthful sense of purpose.
Personal nahafochu, I commented to a social worker friend, might be compared to a reversible coat or jacket, whose “other side” doesn’t just change one’s external appearance but may alter the way one feels too, since the material used is not always the same on both sides.
But we do get into the habit of wearing a reversible jacket just one way. A change in mindset is needed to swap it around.
MY FRIEND extended the idea of nahafochu to include a gradual reversal of roles in a marriage, recalling a client from a traditional Middle Eastern background who had been trained to serve her husband and ignore her own needs.
“Over time, she began to adopt the Western way of thinking, realizing that she was belittling herself and depriving herself of all sorts of opportunities. Her husband, a classic male ruler figure, had no choice but to get used to it. Moreover, she encouraged her daughters to do well in school so they could have the opportunities she had been denied.”
As another reversal of the expected, my social worker friend noted that some of her most profound professional insights had come to her not from mature adults with experience of life, but via children and so-called “simple” folk. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, you might say.
A DIFFERENT kind of nahafochu persists in intriguing me, I confessed to this friend. Only I wonder if it can be attained.
“You know how beneficial it is for people to feel gratitude for all the good things they have – in other words, to be able to count their blessings? It makes for a far more contented life.
“So,” I continued, “do you think we humans could cultivate a parallel ability to feel grateful in a real and ongoing sense for what we don’t have – such as, for example, pain, a problematic child, job or marriage, or some other negative sensation or situation? Could we learn to appreciate the lack of something like that, and feel constantly blessed for it?”
The question occupied me since I had that same day suddenly developed a jabbing pain in the side of my knee. As I nevertheless went about town doing errands, this physical inconvenience brought home to me what a truly wonderful and carefree thing it is to be painfree.
Then, as suddenly as it had come, the pain disappeared – and with it, my appreciation of painlessness. Back to normal, I simply took that normality for granted and didn’t regard it as anything special.
“It is, surely, superhuman to expect people to be grateful for things that don’t exist,” my friend remarked. “Yet all it takes to be reminded of pain and suffering is five minutes in the hospital.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but when a healthy person walks out of the hospital, he will continue taking his good health for granted – until, God forbid, he loses it.”
I’m thinking of pasting up a little reminder – inside my clothes closest, for example – of the practice attributed to Rabbi Nahman of Breslov, who reportedly sent a disciple to “talk to his limbs” and thank them daily for the great job they were doing in keeping him upright and functioning.
NOW THAT I think of it… I do remember one instance of someone who was heartily and continuously grateful for something she didn’t have.
A journalist colleague of mine several years ago confided that she kept a list of all the men she was glad she wasn’t married to.
“When I feel depressed,” she told me, “I take out that list and read it. It cheers me up at once.”