"You speak to us,” [the Israelites] said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:16)
Torah is by and largely a study in failure. Shortly after the world is created, Adam and Eve are expelled from Eden. The first child is born—and then, just a few verses later, he kills his younger brother. God destroys the world in a flood, the tower of Babel falls, and our patriarchs and matriarchs consistently botch their family lives with short-sighted favoritism, generation after generation. And that’s just Genesis. It’s a lot like baseball, where hitting the ball three times out of ten gets you into the Hall of Fame.
This week’s portion, Yitro, brings us to what is in many ways the climactic moment of the entire Torah: the revelation at Mount Sinai. Up until this point, the Israelites have clamored about how much they want to hear directly from God. Yet when they finally get what they wish, they run away and plead with Moses to go in their stead. We know what will follow in just a few weeks: Moses heeds their request, and while he is gone, they persuade Aaron to build them a Golden Calf. Fail and fail again.
So how do we maintain hope in the midst of such consistent failure? This is Torah’s core message, the insistence that despite our constant setbacks, we can always get back on the road to the Promised Land.
This isn’t optimism, really, but it isn’t pessimism either. It’s a path that takes us through dark and difficult times, like our own, and reminds us that there is still plenty of grace and beauty along the way if we are open to it.
Julien Baker captures this beautifully in her new song, “Appointments.” Her hard-earned refrain embodies Torah’s extraordinary mix of hope and failure as she sings:
Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right—well, I know that it’s not—but I have to believe that it is.
These days, I think this nearly every morning as I read the news.
We have to believe that it is.