The problem with miracles
I was 20 years old when I met one of the greatest rabbis of recent times – Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
A genius with an almost unparalleled knowledge of and authority in halacha, I found myself (to my surprise) in a private audience with him and with a few minutes to ask him anything I wanted. I told him about a certain wish that I had, a problem in my life that I had prayed for years would improve.
He encouraged me, offered a new perspective on the challenge, and gave me a blessing that things should be better. (The nature of my issue was very personal, so please forgive my not sharing it.) I emerged with renewed hope and faith that the miracle I sought – the solution to my problems – could indeed be made real. But it didn’t happen. Some months later, I thought back on the meeting with a rueful shrug, and the acceptance that not all prayers are answered in the affirmative.
About 10 years later, I revisited it in my mind and realised – with more than a little shock – that slowly and quietly, without me noticing, my life had changed and my prayers had been answered. It had happened over the course of years, not the weeks or months that I anticipated, but it had happened. I had my miracle.
I believe this illustrates the problem with miracles: we can visualise so clearly the miracle that we want (that we think we need!) that we don’t always appreciate the miracle that happens. The Talmud teaches us that it’s natural for miracles to go unnoticed (Nidda 31a). We are so good at putting a chain of events together into a coherent story that the most unlikely things always seem to make sense – even to be inevitable – in retrospect.
I have heard from many people about the anxiety that they felt in the lead-up to the Six-Day War of 1967. The news and forecasts were all bad, and they feared the worst for our beloved Israel. But, a miracle! Not only did we survive, we merited to hear the joyous cry of “Har Habayit beyadeinu!” (The Temple Mount is in our hands!) Yet, read many contemporary writings today, and they almost gloss over that aspect of it. “Well of course Israel won that war,” you’ll see them write, “but what happened afterwards is what’s really important.”
This points to the second challenge of grasping the miracles in our lives. Our memories are short and our gratitude short lived. One of my favourite cartoons contains this line, “I thought my search would end when I found G-d. But then I couldn’t find my car keys.” Life goes on after even the most momentous revelation, and to appreciate a miracle requires us to remind ourselves constantly of its value.
Speaking personally once more, after our first child, my wife Aviva and I struggled unsuccessfully for years to have another child. They were years of longing and heartbreak, of hope and shattered hope, that resulted in our discovery that Aviva was expecting twins. Due to another series of miracles, they were born healthy and on-time, and I remember thinking that there would never be a moment in which I wouldn’t be grateful for them. And then a few months later, getting up in the middle of the night for the fourth or fifth time, I found myself questioning, in frustration, if this was indeed the miracle I had hoped for. Fortunately these feelings lasted only a moment, and I quickly reminded myself what a blessing it was to be getting up in the night to take care of these infants, but how many miracles in my life have I indeed forgotten?
As we approach the end of 2020, I’m sure you’ll agree that we could all do with a miracle. What would that miracle look like? A vaccine, researched and produced in record time and made accessible across the globe? A financial recovery, and with it the renewed hope and dignity of so many millions? More effective treatments for COVID-19 and the saving of lives feared lost? The chance to hold our friends close again in a warm embrace, without the fear and caution that have become associated with basic human contact? Surely all of these and more.
I pray to Hashem that we will see these miracles. We are already seeing some of them. But one of the great Chassidic masters, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once implored, “Why do you cry out to Hashem for redemption? Don’t you know Hashem’s desire to bring redemption to His people? Cry out rather to the Jewish people that they should wantredemption, and then it will come.”
We have a history that is filled with miracles, and we have a future replete with many more. I believe it’s our task to want – and to work towards – those miracles, to appreciate them for what they are when they arrive, and to nurture and maintain our gratitude for them for years to come.
- Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi at Beit Midrash Morasha @ Arthur’s Road.
How to create room to breathe while being constricted
There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!
While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by telling them that He has heard their cries, and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim, and will be allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).” Commenting on the words “they would not listen”, Rashi creates an equivalence between “to listen” and “to receive”, saying, lo kiblu tanchumin (the people weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.
What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.
However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.
The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim: external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah); and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).
Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.
In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.
This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.
- Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.
Don’t lose your spirit
Imagine you’ve been working on the job for years and years. It’s hard, manual labour and you’re not simply tired but exhausted, demoralised, drained, and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards, and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him, or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being disillusioned, devastated, and cast into despair yet again, or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?
So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years, when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moses brought a message from G-d that they were about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.
The Jews’ response? They didn’t listen to Moses as a result of shortness of breath and from hard labour.
One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit”. In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moses’ call not only from physical breathlessness, but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost their spirit.
In the history of Egypt, no slave ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moses is a dreamer, they must have thought. It’s just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so, the people were utterly despondent and spiritless and therefore, they couldn’t hear – absorb – Moses’ message.
It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine, and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. It takes an extraordinary degree of faith and courage not to.
I have often quoted a wise proverb in the name of legendary Chasid Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing. Money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half. You are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.”
Moses brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave it back the spirit it had lost, and eventually, through the miracles of G-d, the promise was fulfilled, and the dream became destiny.
To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish people can never afford. May we never lose our spirit.
From small flicker to giant flash of illumination
One of the most memorable Chanukah holidays of my life was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, just after dark, I was deeply moved by the sight of the little candles shining in the doorways. Special recesses had been carved in the Jerusalem stone of the doorposts, where the chanukiah was placed, protected from the winter winds and rains by a glass covering. This enabled the literal fulfilment of the Talmudic instruction: “Chanukah candles must be placed on the outside of the doors of our home.”
There was an interesting architectural anomaly in King Solomon’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Windows are usually built to maximise the penetration of light into a building. As described in the Book of Kings, the windows of the sanctuary were shaped by design so that light would shine out, rather than in. According to Talmud Menachot, this was meant to convey the message that G-d doesn’t need outside illumination. On the contrary, the spiritual light of the Menorah, with everything it symbolises, must spill out and brighten the world.
Since March, we have each been transforming our homes into sanctuaries. Our personal dwellings have always been hallowed: places of sanctity and purity which serve as mini-homes for G-d. Confined as we have been for the past eight months, this exercise has intensified.
For months, synagogues were closed for worship and prayer relocated to our flats and houses. Our rabbis, previously preaching from towering pulpits, arrived right into our living rooms on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and iMacs.
Our homes also became beacons of kindness, caring, and giving. Physical hospitality was of course severely curtailed by lockdown limitations. But chesed doesn’t only happen in the home, it also emanates from the home. In counterpoint to the numerous stories of corruption, graft, and theft that dominated our headlines were thousands of acts of selfless attention to the lonely, the elderly, and others needing assistance.
Fortunately, this pandemic is playing out in an age when communication technology is extremely advanced. This made it so much easier to be connected with the rest of world even without stepping out. Today, we can reach out to show care via a telephone call or a WhatsApp message. We can wish each other a good Shabbos through cute little graphics sent out to broadcasts lists. We can help friends shop online even if they aren’t technologically adept. All of these advances became tools for kindness and chesed.
I have seen the inside of many more of my congregants’ homes in the course of 2020 than in any single calendar year in more than three decades as a pulpit rabbi. Zoom Torah classes and virtual services propelled me right into studies, dining rooms, kitchens, and family rooms of hundreds of residences. In spite of the physical distance there was a sense of presence and home-to-home connection that cannot be achieved by gathering in a lecture room at shul or in the rabbi’s house.
Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness). While we worked, played, prayed, and studied in our homes, we were busy consolidating the spiritual pillars that are the real foundations holding up a Jewish home.
Here’s the powerful message of Chanukah 2020: we have had eight months to strengthen the structure of our personal home sanctuary. To renovate it, redecorate it, and spruce it up. If it’s to be G-d’s Temple in a true sense, then its glow must shine out into the outside world, a lighthouse radiating sanctity, serenity, and shalom.
The darkness out there may be thick and appear impenetrable. The miracle of Chanukah was the victory of the few over the many. A small light can dispel a lot of obscurity.
We will start with one little candle, in our doorframe or window, solitary but valiantly radiating the warmth and purity from our home to the world out there. That light will increase, night after night, and combine with literally millions of other little Chanukah flames from Jewish homes around the world, to illuminate the entire planet with a giant flash of goodness and purity.
- Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairman of the SA Rabbinical Association.
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