As a 12-year-old boy, I was diagnosed with cancer. After multiple surgeries and radiotherapy, I went into remission for almost three years. The tumor returned when I was 16. After another round of surgery and chemotherapy, I received, thank G‑d, an “all-clear,” and went straight back to yeshivah. The thoughts expressed here are an expansion of an idea that gave me strength during those years.

Yutu is walking through the snow in northern Canada, starting out on a fishing expedition to bring food and supplies back to his Eskimo settlement.

As Yutu is walking, he sees a dark object in the snow. Upon closer inspection, it is a thin piece of wood. Yutu notes that while one side is rough, the other side is perfectly smooth. Obviously, someone has worked a while on this. He also notices the shape. It’s not an exact square; it juts out on one side, and has a piece missing from another side. There is some color on the smooth surface. There is no specific design: it looks completely random, as if someone had just dumped paint onto the piece.

He’s totally confused. Why would someone take a rare and very useful resource, wood, and ruin it by cutting it into such a small size? Even more so, why would the person then spend more time and effort on this piece of junk, smoothing and painting it? What in the world was he thinking?

Obviously, if Yutu had ever been in contact with modern civilization and culture, especially in a house with kids, he would have immediately known what you may have realized by now: he was looking at a piece of a jigsaw puzzle! Not a puzzle meant for young children, mind you, but one of those nearly impossible 1000-piece puzzles. Had you shown him the picture on the box—or, even better, the other 999 pieces—he would understand perfectly, and everything would “fall into place.”

Why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? These are questions only G‑d can answer. But perhaps this parable can shed a little light and provide a small measure of comfort.

We are like Yutu the Eskimo, looking at a tiny section of the greater picture. We see only one small piece of a cosmic puzzle with an infinite number of details and pieces. What the full picture is, and how the pain and suffering fits in, we will never know—until Moshiach comes. Then the last piece will be put into place, and we’ll see the completed puzzle.

Another point:

The point of the puzzle is precisely the fact that you don’t yet see the big picture. Once all the pieces are in place, the game is over. It’ll look nice, and you may even frame it, but there is nothing left to puzzle over.

If we saw the reason why we suffer, and there was a clear correlation between action and consequence (whether positive or negative), we would have no free will. With immediate divine results, only idiots and masochists would ever misbehave.

The reason for, and the challenge of, this world is that we, with complete free will, should choose to do what’s right. If He wanted angels, perfect and totally subservient, we wouldn’t have been created. He made us so that there should be challenges and we should overcome those challenges.

Back to Yutu the Eskimo. Yutu doesn’t have too much time to ponder the sliver of wood. He has a lot of work to do, and the freezing winds are making it difficult to stay outside. He pockets the wood, and gets to work building himself an igloo to house him for the next few days. An hour later, finished with the shelter, he starts fishing.

Lying exhausted on his makeshift bed of snow that night, he finds it difficult to sleep. He’s cold. After tossing and turning for a while, he has an idea. He takes the wood out of his pocket and lights it. With the insulation of the igloo, the fire is just enough to take the edge off the cold, and Yutu sleeps well.

The next day, sitting alone by the ice hole waiting for something to get caught on his line, he sees someone approaching in the distance. Great, something to break the monotony!

The man appears to be looking at the floor, searching for something. Finally he comes within earshot, and Yutu asks him what he is looking for.

This is Jack, a marine biologist and Oxford graduate. He’s doing a study on the sea creatures of the Arctic. Knowing that the Eskimos’ help and knowledge would be a useful asset, Jack learned to speak a fluent Inuit.

Jack explains that he had a 1000-piece puzzle. “Yesterday, one of the pieces went missing.”

After some thought, Yutu tells Jack about the piece of wood he found the day before. Is that what he’s looking for? If so, there’s no point looking for it; he burned it.

At this, the cool, collected scientist becomes enraged and starts shouting. “How dare you? That was very precious to me, and you just go and burn it!”

Yutu, who still hasn’t fully grasped the whole idea of a puzzle, gets confused. “You just told me you still have 999 more such pieces. Why are you making such a big deal about one little piece? Enjoy all the other ones, and forget about this one!”

Of course, anyone who has seen a puzzle knows that when one piece is missing, the whole puzzle is incomplete, almost worthless. The whole unit is ruined.

When we look around the world at the 6 or 7 billion people currently alive—and, closer to home, the 15 million Jews—we may think, “What difference does it make if I study Torah and do mitzvahs? You think G‑d even notices or cares? Either way, there are millions of others; I don’t count.

“And even within my own life, I’ll have thousands of weeks, tens of thousands of days, millions of hours and minutes. Does it really matter if I put on tefillin today? Say Modeh Ani in the morning? Learn another little bit of Torah during my few spare minutes? Does it really make a difference?”

This is a second lesson from the parable. Every person has a part in the cosmic puzzle. We may even have more than one piece. Perhaps every second, every opportunity to do a mitzvah, is another potential piece. Each person has a unique, irreplaceable contribution to make. Once all the pieces are in place, the inner perfection of the world will be revealed. This will happen in the era of Moshiach, about which the verse says, “Death will be swallowed up forever.” May it happen soon.