Vaera: In Defiance of Despair
This week’s Torah portion, Vaera, focuses on the power struggle between Pharaoh and Moses. Interestingly, even though this battle is on behalf of the Children of Israel, their response to the unfolding drama consists, in this reading, of just one verse:
And Moses spoke–just as [God had instructed him] to the Children of Israel, but they didn’t listen to Moses on account of shortness of ruakh and because of hard labor. (Exodus 6:9)
I didn’t translate the Hebrew word “ruach” because it’s one of those words with multiple meanings and nuances. Ruakh can mean “spirit” or “breath” or “wind” (and a few other things), and some of the more subtle implications of the verse change depending on which meaning is emphasized.
Breath and spirit in Vaera
Rashi, explored these variations in his commentary on Vaera:
…because of shortness of breath: Whoever is under stress, his wind and his breath are short, and he cannot take a deep breath.
Recent research on meditation and yoga has confirmed Rashi’s insight (as well as what I discovered in my own practice): there is a direct relationship between breath and mood. When we are under stress, our breathing becomes rapid and shallow–in other words, short. That creates a vicious cycle in which our stress-altered breathing pattern perpetuates our anxiety.
No wonder the Israelites were unable to believe Moses’ reassurances. And that’s exactly where Rashi goes in a second comment:
…but they didn’t listen to Moses: They did not accept consolation. In other words, they despaired completely of ever being redeemed.
Oppression and fear had crushed their spirits to the point of hopelessness and resignation.
The long haul
The day after the Women’s March on Washington, the organizers posted a reminder: this is a marathon, not a sprint. I suspect that things will get worse–maybe a lot worse–before they get better. I know myself well enough to see my tendency to despair, especially when I feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the work that needs to be done.
So I’ve posted a quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel over my desk to remind me of my values and to strengthen my resolve. The passage read, in part, “A religious [person] is [one]…whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” The love and compassion part comes relatively easy for me now, but I’m still learning how to defy despair.
Last week, I wrote that I can longer prioritize my inner work over my work in the world, and I mean it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m giving it up. In fact, I’m recommitting to it. Because the best way I know to sustain compassion, and to defy despair is to give myself time to elongate my breath and to rest for a time in equanimity and peace. I’ll be getting on my yoga mat and meditation cushion regularly so that–unlike the Children of Israel in Vaera–I remain strong enough to hear and to hope.
May you be blessed…
May you be blessed to do your work in the world with love and compassion. May you find the strength to defy despair and to continue working for change. And may our collective efforts redeem our holy broken world.
Ameyn, ken yehi ratzon. Amen, may it be so.