Want to hear a good detective story? Listen to this.
Several years ago we sought consulting with an intellectual property attorney about a certain issue. She asked us to send her some documents. Before getting off the phone, she said “I’ll look at what you send me … tomorrow and I’ll get back to you.” Before the word “tomorrow” she muttered something I couldn’t quite make out. At the time, I paid no attention to it.
But, a few days later we followed up on our discussion. Again she said, “Next week I am … – she threw in the word again – going on vacation, and we’ll speak when I return.”
This time I could make out a word that began with the letter “m” and it sounded something like “mitch.” Next week I am ‘mitch’ going on vacation, and we’ll speak when I return.”
Again, I paid no serious heed and went on with my life.
However, when the same thing happened a third time, I became intrigued. After our attorney returned from vacation we scheduled a meeting and, as we confirmed the time, she said yet again, “OK, see you mitch… on Wednesday.”
Was it “mitch” that she said? She knows my name isn’t Mitch. Why would she use that word?
But again I dismissed it. After all, there are more important things to think about. I said to myself, “People have their speaking mannerisms. Some pepper their conversations with ‘you know,’ others use ‘whatever,’ and this attorney punctuates her conversations with this “mitch” word.
As we concluded our meeting on Wednesday, the attorney said to me, “I now understand the situation clearly, and – there she goes again – mitchum tomorrow I will review it with colleagues and then advise you.”
This time, rather than speaking on the phone, we were speaking in person. I could make out the word distinctly. “Mitchum” not “mitch” was the word she was using.
What the heck is “mitchum”? I didn’t feel comfortable or professional asking her, so I just swallowed it.
But now, I no longer could just ignore it. In every subsequent conversation I had with the attorney, I waited for the moment when she would use the “mitchum” word. And, without fail, whenever she spoke about some future commitment the “mitchum” word was prominently planted mid-sentence.
“Mitchum,” “mitchum” – I muttered to myself. What does “mitchum” mean? Maybe the attorney’s husband’s name is “Mitchell” and she lovingly calls him “Mitchum.” But why would she be mentioning her husband’s name in unrelated conversations?
This small mystery began to haunt me. Nothing very consequential – like one of the many insignificant things we obsess about in the shower and when we daydream. We carry these in the back of our minds in the hope that some day we will discover the meaning of a particular puzzle.
As my office continued to work closely with our attorney, I got to know her better. Perhaps the answer to the “mitchum” riddle lies in her personal life experiences. But to no avail. She was a very intelligent and highly competent attorney. Jewish and unaffiliated, she was proud of her heritage, though she admittedly did not have a Jewish education and was thoroughly secular in her lifestyle. I could not find any hint as to why she would use this word.
Time passed. Throughout all our interactions, the “mitchum” word would always crop up. I would smile to myself as the word would emerge. Whenever I expected the word to come out of her lips, I was never disappointed. May all our wishes be as easily fulfilled…
I even began to silently mumble the word, as I anticipated its utterance.
Several years passed. Obviously, my life was not disrupted by this conundrum. As I said, it’s one of many trivial details that we carry with us as we move along in life.
Then, one day a thought struck me. I was reading an article about Hollywood star worship and I said to myself, “Mitchum. Where did I hear that word before? Ahh! Robert Mitchum – the actor. Perhaps our good attorney is a Robert Mitchum fan. And has, therefore, incorporated into her daily conversations the “‘mitchum factor.”
I was so proud of my theory! I kept thinking of ways to prove my case. But, I was rudely disappointed. In a casual conversation with the lawyer, I managed to maneuver our discussion to the subject of films and actors. I asked her nonchalantly, “So, who are your favorite actors and actresses?” I added “actresses” just to cover my tracks. You see, our small little obsessions become a source of fascinating intrigue, breaking the monotony that often paralyzes our lives.
This may explain why I didn’t just ask her outright about the meaning of her “mitchum” expression. By this point, I was practically enchanted by the mystery and in its solution. I didn’t want to spoil things by merely asking her outright. It was the strange: “If you can climb in through the window or the roof, why use the front door?” syndrome. It makes no sense, but it makes life a little more exciting.
I’m probably over-analyzing myself – which is one of my vices. Clearly, I didn’t ask her because I didn’t want to intrude on or embarrass her. “Mitchum” may be a private matter or just a habit (like “you know”). Would you go ask someone why they repeatedly say “you know,” or why they say “aks” instead of “ask”?!
She never mentioned Robert Mitchum when listing her favorite actors. “Maybe she just forgot to mention him,” I thought to myself in my obstinate pride. So, I mentioned his name. “Robert Mitchum?? Please! Give me a break. I hate him as an actor!” she replied without the slightest hesitation.
There went my theory down the drain. Back to square one.
More time elapsed, and the “mitchum” mystery continued.
One day, in a completely unrelated experience, a woman who worked at William Morrow (publisher of my book, “Toward A Meaningful Life”), asked me a peculiar question. Her devout grandmother, she told me, had a strange custom. Whenever she discussed her plans, her grandmother would always preface it by saying… (you guessed it): “mitchum.” “What did grandma mean by that?” she inquired of me. “Is it some old Yiddish expression?” (Her grandmother’s native tongue was Yiddish).
I began to laugh.
“Thank you,” I said to her. “You just solved a riddle that has been dogging me for years.” I was able to answer her question.
“Mitchum” is a run-on abbreviation of the expression “im yirtzeh Hashem.” It means: “If G-d so wills.” This is a traditional phrase that goes back many years. It’s a tradition which continues to this very day. When discussing any an activity planned for a future time (e.g., “Next month I plan to travel” or “Next week I plan to buy a new home.”), some Jews traditionally add “im yirtzeh Hashem.” This phrase achowledges that our own planning and will are not enough. We need and want to have G-d’s cooperation and blessing for our plans to come to fruition.
Though it may not be a mitzvah, this “im yirtzah Hashem” declaration – or, when said quickly, “mitchum” – carries a most eloquent message:
Despite all our logical plans, beyond all our strategies and tactics, we recognize that we need G-d’s cooperation. We need G-d’s will be aligned with our plans (or our plans aligned with G-d’s will). Because, after all is said and done, even when we have devised what we think is the very best strategy, we know that things don’t always work as planned. True faith dictates that we do everything possible with the faculties with which we have been Divinely blessed: mind, heart and intuition. Simultaneously, we invite G-d in as partner to our activities by declaring “im yirtzeh Hashem.”
There is another, similar, expression: “Boruch Hashem.” It means “Blessed be G-d.” When one asks a Jew “How are you?” He or she will often answer “Good, Boruch Hashem!” “Good, thank G-d!”
The Baal Shem Tov wanted to inspire Jews. He acquired the custom of asking them to say “Boruch Hashem” at every possible opportunity. It is a way to consciously, verbally, and actively acknowledge G-d’s presence in one’s life.
Why? Because we live in a dark world, a universe that, on its own, is consciously disconnected from its source. One of the most powerful things humans can do to counteract the debilitating forces of a narcissistic and self-absorbed world (caused by the great tzimzum) is to actively introduce G-d wherever and whenever we can. To connect our consciousness to the Divine Consciousness.
“Shem Shomayim shogur be’fi kol,” the name of Heaven [G-d] is on the lips of all. This is the ultimate expression of the all-pervasive Divine unity that permeates and imbues every fiber of existence.
I find it most amazing that our attorney, unknowingly, was revealing G-d into a secular world each time she said “mitchum.” Indeed, her “mitchums” had enormous power. I have heard the expression, “im yirtzeh Hashem,” many times in my life, to the point that it has become so common that I don’t even notice it any more. But never did I appreciate it as much as when I heard the attorney’s repeated abbreviated “mitchum.”
Is this not contemporary revelation? Bizarre, yet still revelation.
So, the next time you plan an activity – making summer plans, for example – remember that the pilot flame of your soul is always burning. It is our job to make it part of our consciousness and awareness, to the point that our soul-flame is rising on its own. [There’s your connection to this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcho, which discusses the kindling of the menorah to the point that the flames had to rise on their own].
One powerful way of doing this is by introducing “im yirtzeh Hashem” into our daily activities.
Or, if you insist… “mitchum.”
Have a good Shabbat, and see you “mitchum” next week.