When Sherre Hirsch, a Los Angeles rabbi, had adolescent woes about boyfriends or school, her grandmother used to repeat an old Yiddish saying: "We plan, God laughs." Hirsch, now 39 and the mother of three children, says, "I heard it all the time. I realized for me and for so many people, that was sort of the theme of their life. It just wasn't turning out like they expected. And in some ways they thought God was laughing at them." Now, Hirsch gives out her own brand of comforting advice, in her new book, called what else? We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted (Doubleday). Says Hirsch: "I wanted people to know that God was laughing with us." TIME reporter Andrea Sachs spoke with Hirsch:
TIME: What types of disappointments are you most commonly confronted with in the course of your work?
Rabbi Sherre Hirsch: Of course people come to me with true tragedies and that's unfortunately a very difficult part of my job. But a huge amount of disappointments that people come to me with are the ones they're afraid to talk to their friends about, because it would sound trite. For example, "My boyfriend broke up with me and I thought we were going to get married." Or "I thought I would get pregnant easily and I can't." "I felt my husband would be different." "I thought my job would give me meaning, and it just gives me boredom." Because they feel guilty for coming to me, they start like this: "There are children starving in Africa, Rabbi, so I feel a little embarrassed coming to talk to you about this." And I say, "Know that God is big enough to care for the children starving in Africa and whatever you're about to tell me." I don't believe that God is picking and choosing. I think God feels our individual pain and hears it, and frankly already knows about it. He's more interested in us dealing with it.
Do you think most people are experiencing that feeling of not living the life they were meant to live?
I think it's a universal feeling. It doesn't matter if you're Jewish or Buddhist or Christian or you don't believe in God.
Let's go over some of the specific advice you give. You talk about people needing to go backwards. What do you mean by that?
I think often we have to look back to see where we've come from in order to know where we're going. Because if you take an honest evaluation of where you have come from, for one it's not as daunting. Some of our memory can play tricks on us. The reality can be bad, but it also can be liberating.
You talk about people needing to stop making excuses.
Yes. I think we are comfortable making excuses because it keeps us stuck. I think we become professionals at making excuses because when we don't make an excuse, it feels very foreign.
You also discuss accepting the moment.
I think it's one of the keys in life. It's to accept where you are today. I remember after my first child, it was six months and I hadn't lost very much of my weight. I was disappointed like all new mothers. My husband said, "Why don't you just accept how you are today? Go out and get some clothes so that you feel good about who you are and you can go to work and look good." And I did. There was a transformation that took place in that week. It was from that time that I started losing the weight. I thought it was a real insight. A mundane example to shed light on the real insight, which is when you actually accept where you are, you can move forward. But if you're berating yourself for where you are How did I get here? Why am I here? you can't move forward because you're still stuck. When you finally say, you know what? This is where I am, but tomorrow I will be in a different place if I'm willing to accept where I am today.
What about celebrating the divine?
I think we always acknowledge the sadness and the grief in our lives. We would never miss a funeral. We would travel miles to go to someone's funeral, but for the same person two years before, we wouldn't travel miles for his or her 62nd birthday. I think part of it is learning that we are divine and that moment should be celebrated, but also we should be celebrated. God celebrates that God made us and that we're valuable and meaningful in this world and that we matter.
What about partnering with God?
When we partner with God, we get in sync with what actually God wants from us, dreams for us, and dreams bigger for us. And then it's about God laughing with us. As well as God weeping with us. We no longer feel like when we have difficulty that when we're weeping we're alone. Instead, we're partnered.
What is it like for a Rabbi to have people bring all of their troubles to you? Is that hard to handle?
I always say you can't clean other people's homes until you clean your own. So I do a lot of work on myself because it's important to me. And I'm not a therapist, so I never have people come to me in the way of therapy. I send them to therapy if they need it, or to whatever recovery or whatever things people need. But I feel like it's an honor. I can't even describe it because I think some rabbis are overwhelmed by it. I feel like God gave me this tremendous gift to listen, to have confidentiality, for privacy, and to integrate. To help people see it for themselves what God is actually saying to them. I think Judaism has internal wisdom and I'm just a conduit for it.