Sunday, January 3, 2016

Short Breath and Hard Labor (Portion Va'era)

Moses spoke (of liberation) to the children of Israel, but they did not hear/hearken to Moses because of their shortness of breath and because of their hard labor.
                                                                        -Exodus 6:9

What does it mean that the Israelites failed to respond to Moses’ message of deliverance on account of “shortness of breath and hard labor”?

The great medieval commentator, Rashi, suggests that not being able to “hear” means despairing of ever being redeemed.  The people have been so oppressed for so long, they have abandoned all hope for the future.  Moses tries to rouse and inspire them by speaking of freedom, but his words cannot break through their desolation. 

As Rabbi Yael Shy notes, this is an apt description of depression and despair.  She writes: “Despair is different from sadness, fear, or even suffering.  One can experience any of those difficult emotions or states of being and still have space in the mind and heart for the possibility of the unknown future—of things changing.  In despair, one believes that there is only one answer you need, and it is no.  Nothing will change.  There is no hope and no possibility.

Most of us have been in this dark place at some point in our lives.  We get so exhausted, so worn down, so battered by painful circumstances that we lose the point of even trying to strive for something better.   As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, burnout is related less to how much work have to do, and more with the sense that our work can make a real difference in the world.  When we believe our actions matter, we can bear enormous burdens.  But when our actions feel meaningless, even small tasks become unbearable.

How, then, can we emerge out of this place of suffocating narrowness?  Nachmanides argues that the answer lies in learning, very gradually, to practice patience and trust.  We might begin by finding one small thing for which we are grateful, even in the most difficult of circumstances, or by imagining a single, ordinary action that we have taken that made the world a little better, despite the disproportionate weight of suffering and injustice.

As we begin a new calendar year, there is much around us that can—and should—break our hearts: violence, hatred, inequality, catastrophic environmental damage.  Our challenge is to refuse to let our anger and grief drive us to the kind of shortness of breath—and spirit—that paralyzed our Israelite ancestors and rendered them incapable of hearkening to God’s (and Moses’) call for liberation.  Let us trust that the world can be made better—and strive to do just that, despite the sometimes overwhelming evidence to the contrary.    As Talmud reminds us: we are not obligated to complete the work—but neither are we free to desist from it.

No comments: