Parshat Va’era

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Samuel Beckett’s searing words from Waiting for Godot seem to sum up the national mood just now. Many of my recent conversations have been shot through with sadness and exhaustion, feelings I have felt at times myself, deeply. There is a real cognitive dissonance between the life we are trying to live and the life we are actually living. The world around us is staggeringly abnormal, but as a society, we seem to have made the collective agreement to act as if it’s pretend-normal. We meet in person, hidden behind masks. We might hug, but then we back up ארבע אמות (four cubits) to secure our perimeters. At the same time, we attempt to churn through our daily tasks trying to keep everything going, all the while haunted by a sense of dread and uncertainty. The things we expect of ourselves (productivity, energy, gratitude) don’t account for how broken many of us feel. When a nearly two-year pandemic with no end in sight is not even the only problem on people’s minds, that’s saying something.

There is a phrase in this week’s parsha that speaks beautifully to this swirl of anxiety and overwhelm and crisis – קוצר רוח. I’ll leave it untranslated for now as we think through it together. Picking up the story where we left off last week: Moshe has made his first attempt with Pharaoh, trying to follow God’s instruction and free Bnei Yisrael. It did not go as planned — at least not as Moshe had planned. Instead of agreeing to Moshe’s request, Pharaoh made life much worse for the Israelites, turning the screws to make their work even harder. To the task of making bricks, Pharaoh added a step: the Israelites now must gather their own straw, before they can make the bricks. Yet their quotas remain unchanged.

More work, harsher conditions, same rigorous expectations. Sounds about right.

So in Parshat Va’era, Moshe comes to deliver a rousing message from God, saying that help is on the way, that God is in the wings ready to make everything OK, that great things are in store once they get out of there! God promises to take the Israelites as God’s own people (לְעָם — as a man takes a woman לְאִשָׁה). Yet when Moshe relays God’s promise, his words fall on ears that are not deaf but numb – the people just can’t

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָֽׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה 

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה׃

And Moshe did speak to the children of Israel, but they didn’t hear him,
because of the קוצר רוח and the backbreaking work.

Rashi, the Medieval French Torah commentator, says this קוצר רוח is shortness of breath: 

כָּל מִי שֶׁהוּא מֵצֵר, רוּחוֹ וּנְשִׁימָתוֹ קְצָרָה, 

וְאֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְהַאֲרִיךְ בִּנְשִׁימָתוֹ:

Everyone who is in distress, his spirit and his breath are short, and he cannot lengthen his breath — a person experiencing קוצר רוח just can’t catch a decent breath.

On the other hand, the 18th century Moroccan scholar, the Or haChaim, sees it as a shortness of breadth. Picking up on the other meaning of ruach, having to do with spirit, the Or haChaim argues that since the Israelites had yet to receive Torah, they were not able to hear Moshe’s message; without Torah, they were stuck in a narrow-minded place.

I am inclined to agree with him. To me, the קוצר רוח is not specifically about the breath aspect but rather about being crushed in spirit. As we saw last week, the people were in a place of severe degradation, with multiple overlapping calamities weighing on them. Seeing their children murdered, being worked to the bone, losing their connection to beloved traditions and customs… Having to gather their own straw was the least of it, but perhaps also the last straw. They were so compromised that Moshe’s hopeful message in this week’s parsha was impossible to take on board. The role of fatigue in crises of faith cannot be overestimated.

At this moment it seems hopeless, like the first half of the couplet from Godot: I can’t go on. The קוצר רוח feels insurmountable.

But here’s the second half of the couplet: I’ll go on. As is so often the case in our tradition, the seeds of redemption are planted in the soil of the harshest experiences. In Parshat Shmot, the cries of the Israelites rise up and God begins to take notice. In chapter 2, verse 25, the people have God’s full attention:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱלֹהִים׃

And God saw the Children of Israel, and God knew.

The Midrash Aggadah reads this pasuk through the language of רחמנות, referencing that great sufferer איוב (Job). What God knew was that the Israelites saw themselves as blameless, distraught like איוב — incapable of pity for their own anguish but rather אֶמְאַס חַיָּי — sick and tired of their own lives. This is קוצר רוח; a people that has become degraded and hopeless. But God won’t leave us in that state. God’s knowing is rooted in a deep empathy for Bnei Yisrael’s plight: יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו — I know my people’s pain. And God keeps the wheel turning.

The road back from such desperation is long and brutal. The plagues and their associated trauma are just beginning in this parsha. The agonies of slavery are layered over with a deep sense of uncertainty about whether and when freedom will come, and what it will cost. The Israelites will not breathe deeply for some time — as they witness bizarre and horrible things all around them. Meanwhile Moshe struggles with Pharaoh, with God, and with himself, poised between, “I can’t go on,” and, “I’ll go on.”

Luckily we know the story; we know how it ends (and doesn’t). We know that God will redeem Bnei Yisrael, and that redemption will be harder than anyone imagined. We know that it will be agonizingly incomplete, not just for Moshe but for us. We will move forward, fall back, see signs of hope and see our hopes dashed. We will be boxed in, locked down, worried and aching with loss. We will have moments when we again are gathering our own straw. We will have moments where we, too, can’t breathe, moments when our spirits are crushed. And yet we will have moments of triumph even so. Eventually things will be different. Not perfect, not necessarily even better. But a space will open up, where we can begin to hear and see and know…and breathe. And God will meet us there.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Say it with me.

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

Let All that have Breath… Work for Change

[This is the sermon I delivered on Yom Kippur 5780 at Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Havurah in Newton, Massachusetts.]

Shana tova! How’s everybody holding up?

So here we are, midday on Yom Kippur. Those among us who observe by fasting are probably starting to feel it. Let’s take a few breaths together to get centered.

Breathing is underrated. We do it all the time: sometimes with intention, sometimes absent-mindedly, sometimes frantically, sometimes with awe and wonder. It is easy to take breathing for granted…until you have a terrible cold, or are singing a really long note, or are in the company of a skunk. Yet breathing, when you pay attention to it, can be soul-filling. 

The Hebrew language makes a pretty strong connection between breath נשימה [neshima] and soul נשמה [neshama]. Technically you might say that breath is just the air going in and out of our lungs, but clearly the Hebrew language wants us to think more expansively about it. Breath is not merely anatomical but spiritual. When we breathe, we are somehow gaining access to our very souls.

In fact, the two words are sometimes translated as though they are interchangeable. Psalm 150, for example, describes praising G-d with different instruments: shofar, harp, tambourine, lute, cymbals … and finally, ecstatically: 

כל הנשמה תהלל יה הללו-יה

Some translators interpret that line as: “Let all that breathes praise G-d; hallelujah!” while other translators interpret it as: “Let every soul praise G-d; hallelujah!”

Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the President of Hebrew College, teaches, “the sound that comes through the hollow bent horn of a ram is the sound of human breath, amplified, so we might hear it.” We spoke last week about the ways in which the sound of the shofar wakes us up. In our short chevruta study, we directed our thoughts to the ways in which the shofar calls us to remember what’s most important, and in these past ten days of teshuva, we have, each in our own way, been coming to terms with the ways in which we may have fallen short of our highest aspirations, taking stock of the relationships and concerns in our lives which merit deeper attention. 

So last week the shofar woke us up to the need in the world… but it was kind of a cliffhanger. This week, those who observe this way up the ante with a 25-hour fast. In this time of intense soul-searching, we deprive ourselves of the pleasures of the body so that we can really focus on the needs and longings the shofar blast awakened us to. But I’m sure I don’t need to tell you: it is easy to get so focused on our individual discomfort that we lose track of the purpose of the fast.

Today’s haftarah reminds us of this. Isaiah has a few things to say about the prospect of an empty fast. In verse 3, the people complained to G-d: “Why, when we fasted, didn’t You notice? When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?” 

Finishing the verse and going on, Isaiah posits G-d’s answer: “Because on your fast day, you see to your business, and oppress all your laborers! Because you fast in strife and contention, and you strike with a wicked fist! Your fasting today is not such as to make your voice heard on high. Is this the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? Is it bowing the head like a bulrush and lying in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast, a day to be right with G-d? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke; to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”

If you’re fasting to get G-d’s attention, you’re doing it wrong. G-d asks us to fast in order to get our attention.

Now. One of my touchstones in this world is listening to my children breathe. When they were little enough that I could hold them, the sound of their breathing became like the sweetest music to me. Even now that they are older (and probably mortified right about now!), I find contentment and spiritual solace in hearing their breaths, in and out, in and out. When I go in to wake them up in the morning, I sometimes take a moment of quiet in their room before I do the deed, so I can listen to them breathe. It fills my soul.

A couple of weeks ago, along with several friends from Hebrew College, I participated in the Massachusetts Climate Strike. I went for lots of reasons: I was motivated by a feeling of frustration at the way the pace of scandal in the current administration leaves us unable to focus on the most consequential matters because we are too busy being shocked about the latest outrageous tweet. I was motivated by a desire to stand side by side with the young leaders and activists I share my days with. Most of all, though, I was motivated, perhaps selfishly, by the hope that my children would have air to breathe, G-d willing, long into the future, and that they could one day know the pleasure of hearing their own children breathe.

The more I read and learn about it, the more urgent I realize the climate change crisis is. According to the UN report from March of this year (or last year according to the Jewish reckoning) scientists believe that we have just eleven years before the damage wrought by climate change is irreversible. 

We have seen some climate-related devastation already in the form of melting polar ice, species extinctions, and the increasing frequency of storms whose strength would once have qualified them as once-in-a-century events. Just the damage caused by the last few hurricane seasons should be enough to get our attention. In the Bahamas alone, over 70,000 people were left homeless after Hurricane Dorian. Two years ago, the death toll from Hurricane Maria’s devastation was nearly 3,000 in Puerto Rico. And nearly fifteen years after Hurricane Katrina, parts of New Orleans are still struggling to recover. 

As with most things, the effects are worst on those who have the least, but you don’t have to be impoverished or live in a coastal area to be affected. Climate-related disasters have wide-ranging intertwined effects on wildlife, beach erosion, tourism, epidemics and other issues around the spread of disease, economic stability, migratory patterns and more. Everything that happens in an environmental or weather event touches off other consequences in many arenas. 

Getting interested in the climate crisis is about much more than hugging the pretty trees and protecting the wide-open spaces we love. This truly is — or should be — a matter of global concern, and of global action.

So what can you and I do? We have little influence, little economic power. Even my modest lifestyle, my commitment to reusing and recycling, my efforts to emphasize real food made with recognizable ingredients — all this still feels like whistling in the wind compared to the enormity of the problem. Yet when I marched with 40 folks from Hebrew College alongside an estimated 7,000 people — that’s a lot of whistling! And the global numbers are quite staggering. The folks who do this kind of counting estimated that at least one million people participated worldwide in the climate strike in September. Imagine the noise that a million people whistling can make! It might even rival the shofar.

Clearly there is much work to be done, and if we all work together we can make a difference. If I decide no longer to use single-use plastic such as plastic cutlery & cups that’s one thing. If we all do, that’s something more. If we model this one small change and talk it up in our workplaces and with our families and friends, we can really begin to make a difference. And that is just from one small change. One of my fellow students pledged publicly to give up driving to and from school one day a week in favor of public transportation, and I am working on the carpool logistics to be able to make the same pledge. Whether these small changes speak to you, or something else does, I urge you to consider what you can do to increase your positive impact on the world.

As we read in the maftir today,

רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע

“See, I set before you this day life & good, and death & adversity. For I command you today, to love Adonai your God, to walk in G-d’s ways, and to keep G-d’s commandments, laws, and rules, so that you may thrive and increase, and that Adonai, your G-d, may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess.”

These words are as relevant today as they were originally. The land is crying out for us to make different choices, to contemplate the gift of Nature that G-d gave into our care in B’reishit, and to exercise our stewardship in a more responsible and thoughtful way.

There is a line in our Yom Kippur liturgy that we chant several times, 

אנו נחלתך ואתה גורלנו

We are Your inheritance and You are our fate. 

I’ve been pondering what it means to say that we are G-d’s inheritance. It’s puzzling — G-d doesn’t have possessions in the conventional sense. And from whom would G-d have inherited anything anyway? Who could possibly be further up the food chain?

One day recently when I was out walking in the woods and thinking about this beautiful planet whose creation we had nothing to do with, but whose gradual destruction we might be witnessing, I began to see it in a different way. It’s not that we are an inheritance in the sense that an old family wristwatch or a stash of love letters between long-dead ancestors might be. Rather, we are an inheritance in the sense of what’s left behind. We are what’s left, the remnants of the people before us, and the people before them, and the people before them. G-d is counting on us. Let’s step up, so that the “inheritances” ahead of us — our children, and theirs, and theirs after that — will have air to breathe, water to drink, space to live, and please G-d, a world at peace.  

G’mar chatima tova!