04/10/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Jun 10, 2013

March Madness and the Meaning of Life

University of Louisville won the NCAA tournament. Many had predicted they would do so, though few foresaw the circumstances of injury they would overcome.

Louisville's predicted win is rare in the world of sports. It is also rare in life. Rarely does life turn out the way we thought it would. As a rabbi, I see this all the time. Parents dream of a child who will become a doctor. He decides to open an ice cream shop. A father pictures a future basketball player. He prefers making sculptures.

Man plans, the Yiddish proverbs says, and God laughs. Life doesn't turn out the way we expect it to be. Yet, perhaps we hide in those expectations. Perhaps we hide from today in the plans for tomorrow. Today, however, is not only a bridge to tomorrow. It is a springboard to eternity.

Embracing Uncertainty

Jewish tradition gives a vivid picture of this truth in an ancient practice. On Yom Kippur, in a traditional synagogue, the men wear a white robe called a kittel. The custom is to wear the same kittel at our wedding, on every Yom Kippur, and then to be wrapped in it as a burial shroud at our death.

The message is clear. Our lives are not disjointed days. Their minutes and hours connect to one another. They link who we are to who we will be. Every day is an opportunity to seek the hidden treasure within us.

Stop Thinking About Tomorrow

The greatest barrier to finding what is hidden today is fantasizing about tomorrow. How often do we create a flawless vision of our future self: the perfect job, the perfect marriage, the perfect world. Rarely do these visions ever match reality. They often have the opposite of their intended effect. Rather than guide us, they handicap us. Rather than pull us toward the future, they trap us in the past.

If we think only of tomorrow, we never discover hidden treasure within us today. When we avoid the challenges of today, we never become future person we are meant to be. "Today," the psalmist wrote 2,000 years ago, "is the day God has chosen. Let us rejoice and be glad in it." If we do so, we discover possibilities within ourselves that we never saw before.

Lessons From Prison

My dad taught me this lesson recently. A few years ago, the medical school where he works entered into an agreement with the Wisconsin state prison system. Coincidentally, a clinic he had been running was sold to a different hospital. The dean of the school asked if my dad could serve as a therapist at a medium security prison three times a week.

My dad was in his early 60s imagining a nice, easy retirement with my mom. I think working in a prison was the last thing he imagined doing. On his visit to decide whether he was going to do this or not, the prison's warden told him not to shake hands with the prisoners or wear a tie, lest someone try to strangle him. Yet, he accepted.

Through the prison work, he has found a whole new meaning in his career. He has faced situations and behaviors that opened new channels of empathy. He has struggled with the reality of evil and apathy. He has encountered people that have changed his perspective after 35 years of practice.

Finding Strength When We Least Expect It

Quite often we find new meaning and strength where we least expect it. Quite often it lies waiting for us to discover. We simply have to look within ourselves.

One of my favorite stories in all of Jewish literature conveys this truth in dramatic fashion. It concerns a man named Reb Isaac of Krakow. Isaac had a dream one evening. He dreamed that a certain treasure was buried underneath a bridge in Prague. Eager to provide more for his family, he pooled his resources and traveled to Prague.

When he got there, he found that the bridge to be guarded day and night. He waited patiently. After a while, the guard began to have sympathy on him. He went up and asked Reb Isaac what he was doing here. Reb Isaac told him about the dream of buried treasure that brought him to this bridge.

The guard laughed. "You have faith in dreams, he said. That's nonsense. If I believed in dreams, I would have gone to Cracow, because long ago I dreamt that under the stove of a man named Reb Isaac of Cracow, there lay buried a great treasure." Reb Isaac understood the message. He returned to Cracow that same day. When he got back to his home, he discovered the treasure that lay inside it.

If we look, hidden treasures lay buried within each of us. And new ones appear all the time. We do not have to travel to Prague in order to find them. Yet, we do need the courage to look. Sometimes another person, like the guard in the story of Reb Isaac, can give us clues. But we are the only ones who can find it.