The British during imperial times built golf courses in India, only to encounter an unexpected problem: monkeys delighted in joining the game by picking up golf balls and dropping them in other places, sometimes nowhere near where the shot had landed or the intended hole.
Fences were useless in keeping monkeys off the course. Following the Darwinian principle of adapt or perish, the golfers finally accepted reality and changed the rules of the game. Should a monkey move one's golf ball, one had to play it from the spot where the monkey dropped it.
Given that monkeys were indifferent to whether they improved the golfer's lie by their mischief or not, roughly as many strokes were gained as lost through this expedient. The ball could be found in the rough after a shot drove it to the fairway; it could end up two feet from the cup when it had been hit into a sand trap.
Playing the ball where the monkey dropped it was sometimes fortunate and sometimes disastrous, but the British could think of no other way to deal with this unpredictable reality.
Life is comparable to the impact of those monkeys. Things are not as we drive them and are not found where we expect them to be.
Schopenhauer wrote: "In our youth we sit before the life that lies ahead like children sitting before the curtain in a theater, in happy anticipation of whatever is going to appear. Luckily we do not know what really will appear."
Our lives proceed customarily, when out of the blue we are tried and tested. It may be the responsibility of tending to a newly afflicted loved one, adapting to a monetary loss, facing a death. Change that we did not envision plays havoc with sudden impact. The best we can do is to play the ball where life has dropped it.
Likewise, we can be in the depths when suddenly we receive a career promotion, are told our health is improving, benefit from a financial windfall, or meet that special someone when we thought there was no prospect. We are, at these times, grateful that the ball was taken from the rough and placed on the green.
"If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."
Despite our most strenuous efforts, God will not be limited by our expectations. It is an axiom of military engagement that "no plan of operation survives the first collision with the enemy."
Not even the best of strategies are a match for circumstances. Life is chaotic; the only thing to be expected is the unexpected.
Of course, we understand that surprises are intrinsic to life. But we construct our lives around the illusion of control, managing and organizing the details of existence so that we will feel safe.
But no matter the preventive measures we adopt, plans are circumvented and experiences remain beyond our control. This is God's way of keeping us humble, demonstrating we are not as in command as would like to think. Life mocks pretensions to control and we are thrown off course.
A journalist wrote: "Among the few certain truths of 9/11 are one that applies to every day that dawns. That there is no guarantee of tomorrow or the next five minutes. This is the central provision of all contracts between people and their lives. No plans, large or small, are exempt."
In Jewish parlance, when discussing a future activity ("next month I plan to travel," "next week I plan to buy a new home", "tomorrow I have a planned meeting"), we add in Hebrew, imyirtzeh HaShem, "if God wills," acknowledging that beyond all our plans we need and want to have God's cooperation and blessing that they come to fruition.
For we live in a universe that God manages, not we. We have to meet his conditions as he lays them out.
"For I know the plans I have for you," God declares through Jeremiah. "Your thoughts are not My thoughts," he proclaims through Isaiah.
Life does not have to adapt to us. We are the ones who must do the adapting. We must deal with life as it is, stop monkeying around, and play it as it lays!
MARK S. MILLER is the senior rabbi at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.