I recently returned to Milwaukee from Eretz Yisrael to find a winter wonderland. The view that greeted me was beautiful and pristine. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and everything was covered with a shimmering blanket of snow. It definitely qualified for an exclamation of “How abundant are Your works, Hashem; with wisdom You made them all” (Tehillim 104:24). Notwithstanding the above, opening the front door during a Milwaukee winter is an invitation to be struck by a blast of subzero air capable of shriveling any living entity in no time at all. The weather bureau says that this year’s winter is setting new records. Conditions the likes of which we are currently experiencing are trumping even those of 1985, which for those of you old enough to remember were especially treacherous. The media reports these days are replete with analyses, warnings, implications and forecasts attendant to our extremes of climate.
One message that cannot be ignored is that regardless of all the recent advances in technology, controlling the weather isn’t an area in which we’ve made advances. In fact, Chazal inform us that the weather is one realm that Hashem has reserved exclusively for Himself, symbolized in numerous Biblical verses by rain. It must therefore be a humbling experience for those who are invested in the marvels of science to concede that a power greater than theirs is running the show. Be that as it may, I confess to having conflicted emotions about the weather. On the one hand, I enjoy looking out the window and taking in the picture-perfect view. On the other, I am, for all practical purposes, a prisoner in my own home. Venturing out is not advisable. Even younger and nimbler members of our community have slipped on the ice and suffered fractures of all kinds. Respectful of these dangers, our wonderful and attentive chevrah have seen to it that I am escorted by friends to shul on Shabbos, a distance of only two blocks, all of us taking baby steps to reduce the chance of slipping.
But the most powerful impact on my emotions generated by our current freeze is that it takes me on a journey to my past. I am transported in my mind’s eye to almost 55 years ago, when my parents, z”l, younger siblings and I (yibadlu l’chayim) boarded a train for Milwaukee to attend my tena’im. In those days it was a trip of at least two days, compared to today’s two-hour flight. My future in-laws, z”l, met us at the train station. I will never forget my father’s reaction to the sight of Milwaukee, a small, quiet town compared to frenetic New York. We arrived in the dead of winter, with weather conditions strikingly similar to what we are now experiencing. The small geslach (streets) and individual houses, set apart from each other, were eerily reminiscent to my father of the shtetlach in Europe. He was flooded by memories of a world that once was. The memorable and emotional address he delivered at shul was not only a product of his joy at the celebration of his daughter’s engagement, but also reflected a nostalgic undercurrent of reconnection with a world from which he had been torn.
Perceptions are tricky things. No two people see the same thing even if, objectively speaking, the facts on the ground appear to be indisputable. As our Sages observed, “Just as no two people look exactly alike, so too are their views different and unique.” Consider Rachel, a darling young woman who has experienced fertility issues. She is a person of remarkable faith and embraces life with a positive attitude. We had a conversation after her most recent failed attempt. She shared that she would like to enhance her knowledge and skills so that rather than focusing on what didn’t work, she would have something to show for her time. I strongly encouraged her, pointing out that whatever experiences and knowledge we acquire in life become an integral part of us, and it is this person, replete with the growing richness and acquisitions of new experiences, that is brought to every situation in the present. Our “personhood” is a composite of nature and nurture, personality and temperament. As a result, our perceptions of any given situation are also unique and particular to ourselves.
The inescapable conclusion is that we all live in separate realities. It therefore behooves us to respect where another person is coming from, to refrain from jumping to conclusions or be judgmental or critical. No one can ever completely plumb the depths of another person’s situation. The Mishnah says it best: “Do not judge another person until you have reached his place.” And when will that be? Never. Even something as seemingly mundane as a cold winter day and an unbroken carpet of snow can offer insights into the intricacies of the human condition. Our emotional associations, unique perceptions and how they are formed are all part of the complex equation that determines how we see the world. Thus even a tiny snowflake has the potential to launch a veritable avalanche of rich memories that define who we are.