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Dear Friends,

I’m taking a bit of time to step back and reenergize. As I do, I am reminded of the wisdom of our ancestors who urged us to take one day a week to refresh and reconnect—with ourselves, with others and with Divinity.

I wanted to share this commentary on the weekly portion. Written by Rabbi Bradley Artson almost two decades ago, when one reflects on the moment we are in, it feels nothing short of prescient.

Rabbi Artson writes:

We live in trying times—terror around the globe, freedom under siege, poverty and starvation throughout the world, persistent ignorance and bigotry despite great efforts. It is easy to despair of a better tomorrow, to throw up our hands in hopelessness against the entrenched resilience of evil, of suffering, of hate.
We are surely not the first to feel the urge to surrender. Parashat Va-Era recounts our ancestors’ brush with despair. Having survived centuries of slavery in Egypt, they were shocked and elated by the good news brought to them by Moses. God had heard their cry. Liberation was at hand! The Torah recounts that they believed in Moses, and yet the awaited liberation did not come. Having their hopes raised to almost unimaginable heights and then dashed down as the painful reality of their enslavement continued, the Israelites abandoned their dreams of freedom.

The Torah recounts, “They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9).

Many of the great Torah commentators of the medieval period worked to explain the nature of the Israelites’ despair. Rashi recognized that “they did not accept consolation.” He noticed that the Hebrew expression for “crushed spirits” is the same as for “shortness of breath.” Using that similarity as his springboard, Rashi taught, “Anyone who is under stress is short of wind and breath and is unable to breathe deeply.” The weight of slavery was so onerous, the pain of lost hope so searing, that the Israelites’ very breath was constricted.

Abraham Ibn Ezra noticed that the Hebrew expression could also mean “impatience.” He tells us, “Israel did not hearken nor pay attention to the words of Moses, as their spirit was impatient because of the length of their exile and the hard labor.” For Ovadiah Ben Jacob Sforno, the gap between their expectation and reality was too great for hope to exist: “It did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their hearts could not assimilate such a promise.”

Most intriguing of all is the psychological insight offered by Rabbi Hayim Ben Attar (seventeenth-century Morocco, Italy, and Israel). He understands that new hope can make suffering even harder to tolerate. The closer liberation comes, the more difficult it is to tolerate one’s oppression: “The people had good reason for becoming impatient at their fate, because when Moses had come, he had given them hope that their liberation was close at hand. This had given them a new and broader perspective on life.”

These insights illumine the nature of despair: it can be physically devastating; it can preclude the acceptance of good news; and hope itself can make a bad reality even less acceptable. There is yet one more comment to make about despair.

There are insights that can only be accessed from a place of despair. There are times when only by hitting rock bottom, by being forced to abandon our own self-centeredness of sense of control, that we can become open to help from beyond. Only when we despair of ourselves can we then reach beyond ourselves for consolation and help.

Abandoning the pretense of our own self-sufficiency can open doors to a deeper sustenance. Releasing our own delusions of power and control can permit us to flow with currents far more profound than our own. Turning our destiny back to the One who actually writes the script can be both liberating and a source of deep illumination.

By feeling the fullness of despair, the Israelites became open to the possibility of liberation.

Perhaps we too need to invest less energy in distracting ourselves from our sorrows and open ourselves to their embrace, to our consequent transformation.

To which I can only say… amen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Daniel Cohen