I was talking with someone the other day, and this is how they described their recent birthday morning:

I’m addicted to coffee, as in, “Can’t do anything in the morning until I have my first coffee.” Typically, with a large and boisterous family, mornings aren’t the best time to have a peaceful coffee, so it’s usually a hasty ritual of throwing grinds in the machine and grabbing it on the way out the door after it’s already too cold to enjoy.

Well, for my birthday, I had this fantasy that I would relax on the couch before the kids got up and treat myself to a luxurious coffee experience.

Hey, it’s the small things in life.

Sure enough, I woke up early and started preparing the coffee. Before I had a chance to get to it, two of the younger children woke up asking for a story before school. “Okay, I’ll do it; it’s a cute thing after all. I’ll get my coffee after.”

I ran down to finish making the coffee and took a sip, but by that time, the baby was up demanding attention, not to mention my older son who needed a clean pair of pants. Down the coffee goes as I run to tend to them. The luxurious coffee fantasy is quickly slipping away.

And then, the coup de grâce: I came down to at least finish the now-cold coffee, and in real time, I witnessed the baby reaching up to the table and dumping the entire thing on the floor.

“What a birthday! I couldn’t even get a simple coffee! Why?! Can a Jew just have a coffee??”

It’s a relatively silly story of one person’s morning, but it’s really the story of life.

The trick is how to respond.

Curses of Happenstance

The bulk of Parshat Bechukotai is dedicated to what is called the “Tochechah,” a series of frightening curses that G‑d will visit upon the Jewish people should they choose to defy His word. After a string of terrifying curses such as being driven to eat one’s own children due to starvation, Moses brings the word of G‑d further:

And if you treat Me as happenstance, and you do not wish to listen to Me, I will add seven punishments corresponding to your sins.1

Rashi and many other commentaries point out that this word “happenstance,” keri in the original, is an unusual word. The straightforward understanding is that it refers to one who is cavalier about G‑d’s mitzvot, not giving them the seriousness and commitment they deserve.

The question is, after discussing attitudes of “If you despise My statutes”2 and the corresponding punishments, why does this “cavalier” attitude amount to such treason that it brings fire and fury on one’s head, with sevenfold punishment? I can understand that being cavalier about religious duties isn’t a great thing, but is it really worse than “despising G‑d?” Why the aggressive response?

When Everything Is Random

The answer is that the response to this sort of cavalier attitude is not so much a punishment, but a natural consequence.

The conventional understanding of “happenstance” in the verse is vis-à-vis mitzvah observance. Alternatively, it can be a description of one’s overall attitude toward G‑d.

A believing Jew looks at everything that happens in the world and in his or her personal life and immediately understands that nothing is by chance. There’s nothing random in this world, and as frustrating, challenging, or seemingly pointless things may seem, they’re not really that way. There’s a reason things happen a certain way, and whether or not we’re in on the plan, there’s a plan nonetheless.

Now, aside from the religious bona fides of such an attitude, there’s a remarkable practical upside to those who think this way. When things turn sour and there’s no way to explain why they’re happening (or not happening), you’re able to maintain peace and calm. Is it frustrating? Yes. Does it seem pointless? Yes. But you know that there’s a plan and somewhere, somehow, there’s a reason for all this vexing madness. It’s not just random, or worse yet, someone or some sort of bad karma looking to make your life miserable.

That knowledge alone is incredibly healing and calming, giving you the ability to rise above the situation and maintain composure.

This, then, is what the verse intends by stating that a cavalier attitude of “happenstance” brings fire and fury into your life. After all is said and done, there may not actually be more terror in your life, but it feels that way because you have no way of explaining it. Even someone who “despises G‑d” knows that He’s there and is pulling the strings of fate. So, when the going gets really rough, at least they know it isn’t random, and maybe, just maybe, they can take it to heart and turn their life around so as to merit a better life.

But one who’s cavalier about G‑d and chalks everything up to “chance,” well good luck when the rug gets pulled out from underneath their feet. When the dominos of life start falling, the chilled-out, cavalier person has no explanation for it, and all of a sudden, life is terrifying. There’s no recourse, there’s no way to improve it. If there’s no Master Plan, the door for writing a better chapter in that plan has been slammed shut.

“Happenstance” is not a punishment, but an attitude that makes everything else seem like a great punishment.

When Everything Around You Is on Fire

There you have it: the edifying attitude you can assume when everything around you is on fire. Life can get that way sometimes. This one loses their job, the other one’s dealing with a gravely ill loved one, another is struggling with children suffering mental health challenges, while a fourth is raging about banal stuff like missing a flight.

These are truly frustrating, challenging, and sometimes frightening things. If the world is random, if there’s no Master Plan, then it’s downright terrifying. “Why is this happening to me?” you rage at the sky, your pillow, or anyone else who cares to listen. The more you scream it, and the less things seem to make any sense, the harder it gets to cope with, and pretty soon, you have a huge crisis on your hands—and not just of faith.

There are multiple strategies you can use to cope with such flooding feelings, and here’s one that is as simple as it is powerful: There’s a plan. This isn’t random, and ultimately, the G‑d Who’s scripting this madness has a really interesting twist coming up for you.

Do you understand it? Are you given a peek into His script notes to see what in Heaven’s name He was thinking?

The tough answer is: not always. But it’s still true.

Take a deep breath, keep calm, and remember: Someone’s in control, and all you must do is pass the test.

Now breathe out. You got this.3