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How A Stupid Little Ruler Saved My Life

How A Stupid Little Ruler Saved My Life

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What does it mean to be indispensable?

For most of my life I’ve asked myself that question. Maybe not in those words exactly. But I’ve always had this feeling that there was some purpose to my life uniquely destined for me and me alone.

I can remember, as a young man in my early twenties, sitting under a tree, my back propped against the trunk, gazing out at a forest. I was in Woodstock, New York, during what some call the “Woodstock years.” Days of pondering life and destiny. Of feeling free and unfettered. Of infinite possibilities.

I asked Him why He would give this tree a life of purpose and leave me in the dark

I was young, single and without children. Money was inconsequential. Either it was easy to acquire or it didn’t matter much.

And there I was, sitting under this tree, wondering what “it” was all about. Wondering why G‑d put me on this earth anyway. Wondering what I was supposed to do with myself.

I wasn’t a religious person then. Not in any formal way, anyway. But, I was a spiritual being. Even in childhood, I was a closet believer in a secular household. But still, compared to now, I can’t say that I was religious, though I was definitely interested in communing with a universe that transcended my puny little self.

And in that moment, the creature of G‑d’s creation that offered itself for my contemplation was this tree under which I was sitting, the one whose trunk now supported my back. So I sat there thinking about this tree, and I began to envy it. I envied its lack of confusion. I envied it for not having an identity crisis.

This tree seemed to know exactly what it was about. And its purpose seemed not only clear, but also beneficial to the world around it, including me, the one whose back was being supported by its trunk, whose head was being shaded by its leaves, and whose body was enjoying the cool black earth and green grass that had been sheltered from the blistering sun by its leafy canopy.

And so I did what any young man in my position would do: I began a conversation with G‑d. I was not a stranger to these conversations. I didn't have them on a daily basis like I do now, but I had them regularly, and they were always quite moving and profound.

And in my conversation I did what I often do when I talk to G‑d: I complained. I asked Him why He would give this tree a life of purpose and leave me in the dark. I requested that I be given as much clarity as this tree about the purpose of my life. I told G‑d that just like I was sitting here appreciating this tree, I too wanted to be appreciated, and I wanted that appreciation expressed to me in clear, simple terms.

I think (if I remember correctly) that most of all I just wanted to know why G‑d put me here, so that I could get on with doing whatever I was supposed to be doing to fulfill my purpose in life.

There was no revelation that day. At some point I tired of my dialogue, stood up, brushed off my pants, and continued on my confused way.


Years went by. Lots of searching and seeking and, yes, more dialogues with the One Above.

Within these years I came close to Torah, discovered the teachings of the chassidic masters, and certainly felt closer to having discovered my purpose than ever before. But, to tell you the truth, I still didn’t have that kind of crystal-clear clarity of purpose that I had hoped for that day under the tree.

I looked at my son, took a deep breath, and knew that I was not going to make my train

Actually, it wasn’t until one day, during the months I was undergoing chemotherapy, that I had the moment of clarity I was looking for. And believe me, during those chemo months I wanted this clarity just about as much as I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. It was vitally important, during those days of weakness and fear, to reach some understanding of what my purpose was on this earth, what I was sent here to accomplish, the turf of my indispensability.

First, let me tell you that I’m now nearly fifty-eight years old. I have a bunch of kids. And money is neither easy to come by nor inconsequential. Life has changed a lot since those under-the-tree-at-Woodstock days. And I love every inch of every change.

Among my seven children is my little eight-year-old Dovie. He’s the youngest. My oldest boy just got married.

The other morning, little Dovie was having a crisis. He couldn’t find a little ruler he uses to do his geometry. He was searching all over the house for it; he was late for school; he was crying because he was having a test that day, and if he didn’t bring this little ruler, not only would he fail the test, he wouldn’t be able to even take it. He was facing what in his life would be considerable embarrassment and humiliation.

I was about to leave for an appointment, and was running late because of spending all this time helping Dovie look for his little ruler. But he was frantic and I just couldn’t leave him.

When finally, in defeat and tears, we decided that the ruler was a lost cause, I looked down at his sad little face and decided to drive him to school. He wouldn’t have his ruler, but at least he wouldn’t be so late. Hopefully, I had enough time to drive him and still catch the train and get to my appointment.

We scurried down the stairs together, him still sniffling about what was going to happen at school, me rushing and hoping I wouldn’t miss my train, but mainly feeling really bad for my sad little boy.

We quickly got into the car, buckled our seatbelts, and—just as I was about to reverse the car from the parking space—I stopped. I had this moment. I looked at my son, took a deep breath, and knew then and there that I was not going to make my train. I wasn’t even going to try to make my train. Instead I was going to drive straight to the closest store and buy him the little ruler he needed. And then I was going to take him to school, park the car, go inside, and talk to his teacher so he wouldn’t get in trouble for being late.

It was a crystal-clear moment. And once the decision was made, I carried through these actions without doubt nor hesitation.

When I told my son of my decision, he smiled, squinted his little eyes in a sort of botched attempt at a wink, sat a bit straighter in his seat, and looked out the window at a world that had just gotten quite a bit brighter.

However, shortly after buying the ruler, talking to the principal, leaving my son, and calling on my cell phone to postpone my appointment, doubts began to attack my certainty. Driving back home, I began to berate myself for my choice. How could I blow off an appointment just to buy my kid this stupid ruler he needed for his stupid weekly math test?

By the time I pulled back into the parking lot in front of my house, I was in turmoil, and just sat there for a while. And suddenly, from out of nowhere, I began to smile. And then my smile turned into a laugh. And then my laugh became a glow that emanated from my heart up to my head.

Do you see, G‑d, how much my children need me?

I realized that I was, in fact, quite proud of myself for the choice I had made.

And I did in this moment what any father in my position would do: I began a conversation with G‑d.

And I asked Him: Who needed me more at that moment? To whom was my presence and attention the most crucial? Who else would’ve gone and bought my son that ruler? Who would have even cared?

Do you see, G‑d, how much my children need me? And how they will need me for many years to come?

Can you see, dear G‑d, that I am the only Dad my children have, and that this is, without a doubt, the one area of my life where I am clearly and with certainty irreplaceable and indispensable?

And as I continued this conversation, attempting to convince G‑d of my absolute indispensability, requesting that in the merit of this indispensability He cure my disease, I had the feeling that this stupid little ruler was keeping me alive.


From that day forward, a new awareness and a new prayer entered my life. I began to notice dozens of indispensable moments every day. And as I became aware of these moments, I would attach to them the same prayer: Please, G‑d, can’t you see how much my children need me? How important it is to keep me alive? Heal me.

This prayer would emerge whenever my children and I would share a smile or a goodbye kiss; when we sat and talked together about their life or problems at school; when I would tuck them in bed or cuddle with my boys under my tallit during birkat kohanim; when we would sing at the Shabbat table or light Chanukah candles; or when I would go to their school and talk to the principal.

These were moments that had occurred hundreds of times before—lots of them containing inconsequential things like lost little rulers and misplaced bobby pins, bruised feelings, moments of disappointment, a math problem solved. Only now they were crucial moments, each accompanied by prayer. Now they were escorted by an awareness of the absolute decisive role they were playing in my children’s lives and in mine. They were moments, I believed, that were keeping me alive.

In these prayers, though short and silent and barely discernible, I desperately try to convince G‑d of my indispensability. Like a lawyer I plead my case, beseeching the Almighty with the full intensity of my love for my children that in His mercy he allow me to fulfill my purpose for many, many more years.

For, you see, I have become like a tree. And just as that tree once supported my back as I leaned against it, so do I now support my children as they lean against me. Just as the leaves shaded me from the bright, blistering sun, so do I provide protection and comfort to them in the midst of a world that sometimes threatens to burn their sensitive skins. And just as the tree’s canopy allowed the earth to retain sufficient moisture to nurture the green grass beneath it, so do I nurture my children with the physical, emotional, and spiritual food they need for proper growth.

My Woodstock prayer has been fulfilled.

Jay Litvin was born in Chicago in 1944. He moved to Israel in 1993 to serve as medical liaison for Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl program, and took a leading role in airlifting children from the areas contaminated by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster; he also founded and directed Chabad’s Terror Victims program in Israel. Jay passed away in April of 2004 after a valiant four-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is survived by his wife, Sharon, and their seven children. He was a frequent contributor to the Jewish website Chabad.org.
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Discussion (24)
February 7, 2012
Thank You
This was an inspiring story. My condolonces to the family. Thank you for sharing your story. My husband and I have six children together. I believe if we want to help the world, we must first begin with our family. G-d bless!
Michelle Franco
Hobart, indiana
January 20, 2011
apreciation
it is a great story.
Mirela Carp
Oradea, Romania
January 16, 2011
Simple Clarity
Dear Litvin Family,
I was searching around the website this morning looking for something meaningful to share with my dear friends at the Villa Rey Retirement home wtih whom I spend a couple of hours on Friday morning welcoming Shabbas with them and sharing important holidays and events. Then I saw this story. I too like many other people have grappled with the question of what is our purpose. Jay Litvin, of Blessed Memory, clarified in a way the absolute essence of the question and gave to me (and many other's I am presuming) a viable and solid answer. Yes, I am here to be a "tree" to my family, friends, and the Jewish people and to sanctify the name of G-d. I pray that your family finds comfort in my words that I have found such meaning to my own life through Jay's. May G-d Bless you and keep you and your family in health.
Cena Abergel
Los Angeles, CA
January 29, 2010
To Jay's wife and children
Jay's story is obviously deeply insightful and endearing and will no doubt help many people. Please know and (as I'm sure you do) take pride in how he is helping so many even after his passing. He clearly had a tremendous amount of love and through this story is continuing to express it to you and also help others.
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January 24, 2010
brought tears to my eyes
makes me appreciate my role as a parent
Anonymous
February 8, 2009
was that comment by Dovid Taub?
Pretty insightful and much like his kadoozy character scripts funny.
chuna
brooklyn, ny
November 25, 2007
An article that every father should read.
varda rav-noy
L.A, Ca.
November 9, 2007
How a stupid little ruler saved my life
Jay Litvin continues to have a meaningful life. His stories encourage and inspire all of us.
Anonymous
Morristown, NJ USA
chabadcares.com
November 8, 2007
ruler
It would have been so much more meaningful if some way you could substantiated that the ruler that you bought, was once part of the tree that you were leaning against in woodstock so many years ago.
(sing along)
Where have all the oak trees gone?
Long time passing....
Dovid
November 7, 2007
regarding the little ruler
I loved this story. I liked the moment of certainty when the father (Jay) realized with absolute clarity what was the "right" thing to do. And he was rightly proud of himself for having reached that point where he could have that moment of clarity.

In a world which has so many pathways and things to distract us, it is extremely uplifting to hear of such stories as this.

Thank you for including it in your inspirational stoires. Reading it certainly made my evening!
Anonymous
phila, PA
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