William Hamilton

Handling setbacks

“He could have died and she could have done nothing. Or he could have died and she could have given us this beautiful book.” Rabbi David Wolpe recently commented on Joan Didion’s decision to write The Year of Magical Thinking in response to her husband’s sudden death back in 2004.

This is not to say that his sudden loss was worth it. It wasn’t. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did. So, now what?

It feels like a good time to reconsider how people receive disheartening news.

First, you absorb it. Next, you wallow in it. Then comes a decision. You may ask yourself, “How much more of my time will I give it?” If you are able to get some distance from it, you might ask, “Will I let this bad news define me?” This can all lead to your considering what options remain available to you. If you decide to try one, you may discover that it carries a surprise.

Moses in this week’s portion of Torah exhibits self-doubt. He struggles to answer God’s call at the burning bush. God has just told him that the people will listen to him. Yet he replies, “What if they don’t believe me? What if they won’t listen to me?” (Ex. 4:1). God’s response, in the very next verse, seems a bit out of place. Moses is asked about the staff he is holding, “What’s in your hand?” But I prefer to read God’s question figuratively. Moses is being asked, “What’s in your grasp?” “What’s in your capacity to achieve in life?”

What follows serves to lift Moses up and out from under his defeatism. To be clear, Moses is being called to a high purpose, he isn’t being given bad news. Yet his own blend of humility and self-doubt presents him with a choice: Will he remain discouraged, will he become enslaved to hesitancy, will he stay a servant to indecision, or will he exercise his God-given, free will to extract himself from self-pity? Hiding in the folds of this dialogue is an early foretaste of free choice – a freedom on full display with all of Moses’s challenges at the burning bush. It introduces him anew to the potential he holds in his hands.

How do you respond to what’s next, after absorbing a setback? If someone dear to you has died, you actually should redefine yourself as a mourner. But, if you have to cancel your vacation plans or you rue additional months of COVID-driven confinement, then, as disappointing as these things are, will you allow them to enslave your freedom to act on options that remain available to you? Do you find yourself in a ditch or at a pivot point?

The gifted poet Amanda Gorman refers to prayer as the place where ‘words are closest to will.’ Maybe it’s not accidental that our tradition’s Standing Prayer opens by quoting from God’s personal introduction to Moses at the burning bush, God self-identifies as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (Ex. 3:6, 15) The third and final time this phrase appears, comes right after Moses’s strengthening his faith by extending his grasp (Ex. 4:5). Three times each day, corresponding to three meals, tradition invites us to pray these words which can reinstate a belief in our God-given free will.

The news of Joan Didion’s passing comes with deep sadness. Her writing changed lives and saved lives. Yet we are grateful that her freely chosen, life-giving responses-to-loss remain available to inspire ours.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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