As we look out at the first six months of 2020, it’s very easy to despair. Despair is best summarized as a feeling of loss and displacement, as if we can feel the world crumbling around us. The pandemic, economic worries, civil unrest, added to earthquakes, floods, swarms of insects — it’s a natural thing to gaze upon our world and want to give up. This hurricane of emotions that sweeps over us when we see how far apart we stand from each other, how intractable the problems are that face us, how this place we all call home feels on the brink all the time, these moments — this very moment — feels like the world is being gripped by the very depressive forces that can rage and roil inside each and every one of us. That is because there is no separating our emotional selves from our social selves. Philosophers since Aristotle have long sought to divorce emotions from reason, attempting to enslave the first to the second. Economists too, have long fantasized about the purely “rational actor” who has conquered their feelings in order to buy the most for the least.
The prophets of the ancient Bible knew what philosophers did not. Emotions drive our lives more than reasons. The God of the Bible is no unmoved mover. God smiles, laughs, and suffers and rages, all in the hope for a better world. God’s emotional concern is us. God’s major concern is us. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel l writes, “the predicament of [humanity] is a predicament of God Who has a stake in the human situation.”
What happens outside cannot be separated from what happens inside. No event involving human beings is merely a thing or a happening. It is entwined with emotion, with the past and with the future. The pandemic and the protest are events, but the fear, the pain, the rage and the uncertainty are not experienced simply “out there” but deep inside us. What happens inside of us authors our externalities just as much as what happens outside shapes our experience. Justice itself is nothing without the sacred alchemy of turning despair into love, for one cannot have justice until one acts on despair, and mediates society through love.
This week’s Torah portion, Behalotecha, is no different. The newly freed Israelites charge against all forms of leadership, including their own. After a particularly vociferous complaint about the food provided, Moses is thrown into total despair. He has had enough of the rabble, the complaints, the backbiting and side-stepping. Moses calls out to God, “Why have You brought this evil on your servant? Why have I failed to find favour in Your eyes, that You have placed the burden of this whole people on me? Did I conceive this whole people? Did I give birth to it, that You should say to me, Carry it in your lap as a nurse carries a baby? … Where can I find meat to give to this whole people when they cry to me saying, Give us meat to eat? I cannot carry this whole people on my own. It is too heavy for me. If this is what You are doing to me, then, if I have found favour in Your eyes, kill me now, and let me not look upon this my evil.” (Num. 11:11-15)
In other words, “I’m done.”
This is the height of the despair for Moses. After the greatest liberation in history and the greatest revelation in history, it is lunch that brings Moses to the breaking point. Moses is certainly not the last to despair. Other prophets despaired, seeing themselves rebuked and rebuffed, their words falling flat upon the leadership, their warnings ignored — so too, calls for a more alive Judaism or a more socially just world. Prophet Jeremiah, himself cast into prison, laments repeatedly how much he suffers. (Jer. 20:7-10)
The fact that the Torah includes Moses’ emotional breakdown into despair is a powerful testament to what the Bible is trying to teach. Moses is unwilling to separate his inner life from his outer life. Moses is no Stoic, who tries to overcome his emotions because he, like God, uses emotion to lead.
Despair, perhaps the darkest of emotions, can be the deepest driver of change. No one who is perfectly content asks, “how can I be more content?” No one who feels fine asks, “how can I feel more fine.” It is the harsher emotions like anger and despair, that become the fuel for justice. Moses looks towards heaven and calls God out. This is the moment; it’s all on the line. I’m ready to give up. Now what?
Once again, the God who shapes the universe is shaped by human pain. God listens. God comforts Moses by helping him broaden his leadership to include the seventy elders of the people. God also brings quail to feed the people. (Num, 11:31). Surviving despair is a life-changing and world-changing experience. The Book of Numbers shows us that Judaism is not a faith for the complicit. Over and over again, the Book of Numbers teaches us that the pain we all feel inside must be acted upon on the outside.
To be a Jew is to seek a difference inside ourselves and to heal the world outside of ourselves. The darkness Moses feels is the battle that must be fought over and over again so that he can have the strength to bring the nation across the wilderness. Judaism, in the words of Rabbi Sacks, “is a protest against the world as it is in the name of the world that ought to be.”
The uncertainty we all feel in this moment, the despair that many feels right now, is an emotional wound that also brings the opportunity for change. We take our hits, we have our bad days, we come to the brink, but then we act. The South African writer and anti-apartheid activist, Alan Paton, once wrote, “When I go to heaven the Big Judge will look at me and ask, ‘where are your wounds?’ and I will say, ‘I have none’ and He will say in turn, ‘was there nothing to fight for’?’”
The majesty of the Torah is that it recognizes that what happens within our souls is what drives the global soul. Let us feel this moment and use it to reshape the world anew.
Thank you for providing leadership, clarity, and inspiration during these difficult months. I sincerely benefit from and appreciate your wisdom and guidance.
Shabbat Shalom, Nancy Elkin