Let the Good Timings Roll

After receiving my PhD in 1976, I sent out my “file” to all the Israeli universities, as Tami and I had decided we would move to Israel within the coming years. The next summer (June 1977) we took a trip to Israel and I chanced an uninvited drop-in to the Political Studies Department in Bar-Ilan University that happened to be near where one of my cousins lived. I figured I’d simply “show my face” so that they could see the person behind the CV. There was a huge surprise waiting for me…

We all try to do the best we can in life. That basically means we try to plan our next “move” – not just tactically (should I have that healthy salad for lunch or that delicious macaroni and cheese concoction?) but especially strategically: where do I go to college? whom do I marry? As an aside (I’ll get to my main point shortly), it is very well worth noting what neuroscience has discovered: our brain is nothing less than a “prediction machine”. It is always, constantly, incessantly, relentlessly, non-stop, every second of the waking day, predicting what will happen in the next few seconds and prepares “us” accordingly. We don’t recognize (and it is even weird to think about the fact) that we are only partly in control of our brain – it controls “us” too! The point here is that all sentience involves “future planning” – the only way to survive and flourish.

Back to our topic. Whether it’s a tactical, short-term decision, or a longer-term strategic one, not only are we somewhat in the hands of our brain but even more so of our external environment. And the world around us does its own “thing” – many times with an unpredictable effect on our life.

So, to continue with my little tale above. Although I had a pretty good understanding of Israeli politics back then (one of my PhD oral exams was on the “Modern Middle East”), as an American I was only generally aware of the major electoral “revolution” that occurred in Israel in May 1977 – for the first time ever, the Left-wing government that had ruled Israel for 29 years lost the election to the Right-wing Likud led by Menachem Begin. What I did not know (and realistically could not have known) was that this brand-new government, desiring to start with a clean slate of officials, “drafted” two lecturers from Bar-Ilan’s Political Studies Department into government service. (One of them – Eliakim Rubinstein – eventually became State Attorney General, and later Supreme Court Justice.) Thus, the department had this huge teaching hole just a few months before the new academic year and didn’t quite know how to fill it.

And then I “dropped in” for my impromptu visit. Pandemonium. Right there on the spot, the chairman called a meeting with two other senior professors who happened to be in their office, and after an hour I was hired!! To this day I am not sure who was more stunned by the turn of events – them or me. In any case, I happily and productively spent the next 40 years (virtually my entire academic career), at Bar-Ilan. And all because of a “little election” that led to a major government reshuffle that caused a department headache that…

Well, you get the idea. Sometimes the timing of events is far beyond what any of us humans could possibly take into account. We are on a kayak paddling down a seemingly smooth river when all of a sudden it turns into rushing rapids. If we’re lucky, it’s a great ride; if not, we hold on for dear life.

We try to avoid thinking about this because we would rather believe that we’re in control of our lives. Of course, to some extent we can navigate our personal future. (Navigating or leading society in total is a much greater feat, practically impossible to carry out perfectly.) But the more we admit that it isn’t completely up to us, the better we are able to adapt to the swift changes and challenges that we surprisingly confront.

I returned to our hotel room and told Tami: “I have good news and bad news: I was offered a full-time job by Bar-Ilan!” For me it was great news, but decidedly mixed for Tami, as she was already having great success in her job at one of America’s first cable TV stations and wasn’t keen on leaving then, having already won an award for one of her productions. But she went along with this new “river rapids” situation. (For those of you muttering to yourself: “another case of the wife giving up something important for her husband” – here’s an explanation of what I mentioned at the start: Tami was the one who made it a condition of our marriage that we make Aliyah to Israel. Thus, this move was a product of her earlier wish; it’s just that the timing for her wasn’t the best! As Oscar Wilde once opined: “when the Gods want to punish us, they grant us our wishes…”)

Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is an old Yiddish saying that means “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” Sometimes the joke is on us – and other times we laugh all the way to the bank. Planning is important; good timing, even more so!

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