The audacity of hope in 2021
We will soon be singing the songs of Hallel at the Passover seder. Although we sing Hallel many times in the year, the line from Psalm 118 will hold particular resonance, “Min heMeitzar karati, Anani bamerchavya” (From the narrow place, I called out to G-d, G-d answered me with expanse).
The resonance of this line for Passover is that Mitzrayim (Egypt) shares the same linguistic root as Meitzar (the narrow place). On Pesach, when we sing: “Egypt our place of slavery and the experience of constriction are one”, it seems as if freedom occurs dramatically and suddenly. We cry out to G-d from places of tightness, and G-d answers with expansion, we are free.
This might be how we tell the exodus story thousands of years later. However, if we study the story of exodus, we can see that it was a case of stops and starts until we actually arrived at freedom.
From the first time that G-d announced to Moses that he would respond to the cries of the Israelites until we finally sang the Song of the Sea was a long road filled with ten plagues, increased suffering, and glimmers of hope, an interplay of light and dark.
This year marks exactly a year since South Africa went into its first hard lockdown. Indeed, it was announced a week before Passover. By Pesach, our entire world had changed. We had entered the narrow place.
Some of us had a seder alone, others were fortunate to have immediate family. Yet, we all felt the pain of being isolated from the ones we loved dearly and we were all confronted by the terror of not knowing how the fabric of our known lives would be touched by the virus.
As we contemplated our own fate, we realised that this would have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable in our societies.
One year later, many of us have lost beloveds. Many have lost their livelihoods. The inequalities in our society have deepened, and we shall have to work with this trauma for years to come.
At the same time, we are now in an interplay of light and dark. There is hope on the horizon. The vaccine has arrived. It’s being administered around the world and in South Africa. People are chanting prayers of gratitude.
Just this past week, I went to buy groceries and an elderly woman wearing a mask made a joke to me as I passed by. I looked at her with appreciation and awe to be able to connect with older people again, to have moments of togetherness.
Writer Mari Andrew characterises it well when she says, ‘’For now I want to embrace this finicky in-between season when one day feels like a setback and the next feels like a leap forward. Growth and decay, hand-in-hand, with delicate flowers on the path.”
How do we “do” in-between? In the deepest time of despair in the exodus story, the Midrash tells us that the men lost their desire to procreate. But the women resisted. They would go down to where the men worked. Then they would take out their copper mirrors and look into them with their husbands. She would say, “I am more attractive than you,” and he would say, “No, I am more attractive than you.” In this playful manner, the women would awaken desire in their husbands, and procreation resumed.
Clinical psychologist Leanne Zabow suggests that this idea of looking into mirrors is about re-awakening and re-constellating the idea of potential. Mirrors became a portal to reflect not only on what is, but what could be. The men might have felt undermined, oppressed, and despondent. But the play of reflecting and reflection in these mirrors reminded them of the selves they were and they might become. Perhaps the width of expanse begins not with G-d saving us in an outright gesture of redemption, but with our persistent and audacious hope.
Just before Pesach 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Hassidic Rebbe Kalnymus Kalman Shapira (writer of the Esh Kodesh) wrote a letter to his community. He had exhorted them to leave Poland but as the year rolled on, it became almost impossible for many to leave. In this letter, knowing that the reality ahead for his people was grim and that evil huddled at the door, he instructed his followers to be joyous on Pesach.
He wrote, “Your joy should so exalted that you feel that you can barely hold yourself back from breaking into an ecstatic dance, leaping from the earth to the heavens. When you sit at the seder table, you imagine yourself sitting down to a festive meal in Gan Eden itself, participating in the celebration of the final redemption.”
It’s not my intention to compare the hardships of our pandemic to the monstrous atrocities of the Holocaust. But I’m struck by the rebbe’s radical resistance to despair. He knew what his people faced, yet he invited them to feel joy on Pesach night. It’s deeply moving!
This year, we are still betwixt and between. We aren’t yet freed from our experience of the narrow place. Yet, how we long for it! We can sense its possibility.
We may still have to deal with the ups and downs of this time. But on Pesach night, the Esh Kodesh invites us to become radical imagineers of possibility. We have a responsibility to hold up the copper mirrors of the Israelite, and remind ourselves and each other of the expanse, the possibility of lives fully lived.
For seder night, we enter into joy and sing our redemption song. The time is a coming.
• Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
My kind of hero
The world loves a hero. Every season, Hollywood invents new superheroes to fill the box-office coffers. Today, we even have a Jewish girl as the latest superhero. Now, superheroes are fantastic, but you’ve got to admit, they’re over the top, rather otherworldly and, realistically speaking, out of touch and out of reach. We can fantasise about flying through the skies in our capes, climbing skyscrapers with our webs, saving the world, or rescuing damsels in distress, but at the end of the day, it’s nothing more than wistful daydreaming. What bearing does it have on me and my life, me and my problems? Not much.
That’s why Noah always appealed to me. He comes across as a real-life hero, real in the sense of being human rather than superhuman and therefore realistically possible to emulate.
Rashi describes Noah as a man of small faith who had doubts whether the flood would really happen. He didn’t enter the Ark until the rains started and the floodwaters pushed him in. That explains why some people look down on Noah, especially when they compare him to other Biblical giants, like Abraham or Moses.
Personally, this is what makes Noah my kind of hero. He’s real. He’s human. He has doubts, just like you and me. Noah is a regular guy, plagued by doubts, and struggles with his faith. Which is precisely what makes him a hero. Because the fact is that, at the end of the day, his personal uncertainties notwithstanding, Noah does the job. He has faults and foibles, but he builds the Ark, shleps in all the animals, saves civilisation, and goes on to rebuild a shattered world. Doubts, shmouts, he did what had to be done!
Noah could easily be the guy next door. He is one of us. His greatness is, therefore, achievable. It’s not “pie in the sky”. His heroism can be emulated. If Abraham and Moses seem the superhero types too far-fetched for us ordinary mortals to see as practical role models, then Noah resonates with realism. After all, he had his doubts too, just like you and me.
There is an old Yiddish proverb that nobody died from an unanswered question. We can live with unanswered questions. It’s not the end of the world. The main thing isn’t to allow ourselves to become paralysed by our doubts. We can still do what must be done, in spite of our doubts.
Noah, the reluctant hero, reminds us that you don’t have to be fearless to get involved. You don’t have to be a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. You don’t have to be holy to keep kosher, nor do you have to be a professor to come to a shiur.
His faith may have been shaky. Perhaps he was a bit wobbly in the knees. But the bottom line is, he got the job done. My hero.
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