Two people went exploring and reached a swamp. The first was a man of means; he radioed for a helicopter, and five minutes later was on the other side, the crease in the pants of his safari suit intact. He even took some photographs while he was flying over (he was a man with an avid interest in the sciences), which made a modest but significant contribution to the field of swamp study.

The second person struggled across on foot. He got stuck. He got lost. He fended off poisonous snakes and other creatures too vile to mention. Twenty years later he emerged, calloused, begrimed, with a pronounced limp and the stink of the swamp in his skin. He went on to write the two national bestsellers, Surviving in a Swamp Environment and The Unknown Treasures of the Swamp. He directed both of the movie adaptations, and became the world’s foremost consultant for environmentalist groups and road-building companies. He established an international corporation which mined swamps for high-grade diamonds, whose presence was indicated by a certain type of slime on the surface—a technique he perfected based on his experiences.

One of the most famous pieces of real estate on earth is the Cave of Machpelah (also known as the “Cave of the Patriarchs”) in Hebron. As recounted in chapter 23 of Genesis, Abraham purchased the cave and surrounding field as a burial place for his wife, Sarah, making it the first plot of land in the Holy Land to become the legal possession of the Jewish people.

Machpelah means “doubled” in Hebrew, and two reasons are given for this name. One reason is that four prestigious couples are buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The second reason given by the commentaries is that it had two chambers one above the other, “like a house with a loft above it.”

Paradoxically, the Torah section (Parshah) that opens with the account of Sarah’s death and burial is called Chayei Sarah, “The Life of Sarah.” Indeed, the Kabbalistic work Midrash Hane’elam interprets the very verse describing Sarah’s passing—And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan (Genesis 23:2)—as an allusion to the soul’s journey through physical life.1 And the chassidic masters explain that life is a double-decker cave—“a house with a loft above it.”

Some arrive at the journey endowed with resources: a lofty soul, a refined character, a genius mind. These are the tzaddikim (perfectly righteous), who take the helicopter ride over the swamp of life. They do much good, enriching our knowledge and inspiring us with their bird’s-eye view of reality.

Then there are the sorry slobs who get stuck, who get lost, who get begrimed and beslimed in their journey through the swamp. These are the baalei teshuvah (masters of return), who emerge from their decades of wandering and misadventure with knowledge, skills and profits that far exceed those of their loftier brethren.

Life is a double-decker cave. If you ended up on the upper story, consider yourself lucky. If you find yourself on the lower level, consider yourself luckier.