We know that the devil is often in the detail, but sometimes so is the divine. It was one small detail, one word, that caught my eye in last week’s Torah reading . Moses is recalling his 40-day stint on Mount Sinai when he received the 10 Commandments and Torah:
“I remained on the mountain 40 days and 40 nights; I ate no bread and drink no water” (Deuteronomy 9:9).
The Hebrew word being used here literally means ‘’I sat “, but as Rashi the key commentator highlights this was no ordinary sitting. This was not the sitting of relaxation; this was a sitting of righteous resilience. In other words, Moses was not a passive recipient of God’s words but a passionate and active listener, fully engaged in the experience. It was no short encounter, no quick sprint, but a gruelling, demanding engagement, a long distance (albeit stationery) “race” or journey. Moses neither ate nor drank but remained stoic, patient, persistent and enduring .All these qualities are encapsulated in that one simple Hebrew word -Vaeshev; I sat; I remained; I was there.
This little word caught my eye, tore at my heart and challenged my brain because it so accurately reflects our contemporary condition. If there is one quality that we so need during these uncertain times, this period of regular and extended lockdown and pain ,this long struggle to gain immunity from the Corona tyrant, its endurance or persistence. We talk of the impact of long Covid but there’s also the impact of the long wait for freedom.
We know how devastating this waiting game is; its huge financial cost; its unimaginable strain on relationships; its erosion of mental health; its unknown toll on the lives of the young.
Perhaps we can draw some strength and direction from the man who sat with such stoicism on Sinai .He never denied the strain of living with the pressures of his job, he articulated his frustration and weariness. He may have come from the land of the Nile, but he was never in denial! At one of his lowest moments, he cries out to God: “I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy for me! And if this is how You deal with me then kill me now…” (Numbers 11:14 -15). Acknowledgement of our recognition of the situation may well be the first step of persistence.
Acknowledgement of our collective vulnerability and our individual fragility during this pandemic can be a source of strength rather than a failure of character. It can be especially helpful if it encourages us to seek the support and give help to others.
This could also be one of the most fundamental lessons of the current Olympic series. Naomi Osaka who recently withdrew from the French Open to attend to her mental health put it best when she said: It’s OK not to be OK. Admissions like this and the one from Michael Phelps who admitted he struggles with depression and was suicidal after his fourth Olympics have prompted the International Olympic Committee (IOC )to directly address mental health issues. Dr Naresh Rao of the U.S Olympics medical team makes a telling, if surprising, comment: “If you look at the percentages of people who have mental health illness in general, it ranges from 40% to 50%. Throw in the pandemic and the fact that many of these athletes are teenagers or young adults, and you start to see the percentage could go up to as high as 70%.”
The Torah and the Talmud have long recognised the harm and even devastation that can be caused by mental illness. The Talmud ( Brachot 5b) for example, recounts the depression of the famed Rabbi Elazar. His teacher goes to visit him and finds him lying in a darkened room that is a reflection of his dark spirit. He finds him crying and tries to comfort him hearing his poignant and possibly suicidal thoughts:”I am crying for this beauty which will decay into dust at death”. Strikingly, it is only when his teacher Rabbi Yohanan reaches out in empathy, weeps with him, gives him his hand and lifts him up, that he begins to recover. It’s the heartfelt touch of others that often allow us to carry on, to remain strong and stoic in the place we find ourselves.
When I was a teenager, friends used to write messages and sign their names in each other’s “autograph” books .One of the notes I still remember read: Patience, plodding, perseverance produces perfection. While I don’t believe in seeking perfection, I do embrace the sentiment that these traits produce personality and character. They help shape our attitudes and remind us that we are not defined by fate or what happens to us .We can shape our own destinies even in the face of a pandemic.
There are no short cuts to becoming a mentsch, no quick silver bullets to success. It takes dogged perseverance ,tenacity and practised patience .There are no instant solutions to this pandemic .It will take our collective collaboration, compassion and endurance, it will demand our personal ongoing steadfastness, willingness to accept support and unceasing caring, to get us through this.
May Hashem strengthen and empower us – Chazak Ve Ematz.