We all know that good Yiddish expressions are hard to translate. How can you explain to someone how fermished you become when a meshuggeneh makes you feel like a schmatte?!
Perhaps one of the best words is “krechtz” – that deep grunt of pain and despair that sometimes seems to sum up everything that is wrong with the world. This should not be confused with the “kvetch” where the sound is much worse but the pain inside is not nearly as bad. The krechtz is saved for when kvetching just is not enough and things are so bad you’re on the verge of giving up. Naturally, not only is the word very Jewish – so is the feeling.
The past few weeks have made me krechtz quite a lot. The enormity of the attacks on 7th October, the inadequate and worrying reaction of so many across the world, the feeling that we are alone and facing threats we have not faced in decades, all these and more have made me feel a deep anguish that is difficult to know how to handle. Through that period, we have been reading the parshiyot that deal with our forefathers and the various challenges that God tested them with throughout their lives. In some ways this has given me strength and I have found myself thinking philosophically about our situation, “these things are sent to try us.”
But is that really the case? Does God send us difficulties just “to try us”? Does it really help us to think about our current situation merely as a test or does that just make God sound cruel and controlling? The question initially gets worse when we look at the fact that God tested our forefathers over and over throughout the parshiyot that we have read during the past few weeks.
Avraham famously faced ten tests. At the pinnacle of these tests, Akeidat Yitzchak, God then says to him, “now I know that you fear Hashem” (Bereishit 22:12). This sounds like God is just looking to find out – did He not know beforehand? Many of our commentaries explain that tests we are given by God are not for Him to discover something He did not know – God knows all. They are there to actualize potential thereby bringing what is latent within us into the real world.
We all know the difference between thinking we can do something and actually doing it in practice. “I know the answers so I don’t need to do the homework” is a regular refrain among schoolchildren but whilst one purpose of the work is to show a teacher who otherwise would not know, an additional reason is that the practice of doing the work cements the learning.
When it comes to our character this is even truer – whilst we may have the potential to be kind, we must do kind acts in order to become kind people. Avraham did not need the test to show that he was great but to make him great. For example, the words of the Ramban are, “at first his latent fear of Heaven had not emerged into action through this great act but now it has been realized through action and his merit is complete.”
This is not only true of individuals, it is true for our nation as well. The Talmud tells us that the Jewish nation is compared to an olive (Yirmiyahu 11:16) because just as an olive only produces its oil through pressure, so too the Jewish people can only reach their potential for good through challenge. We don’t squeeze an olive to know that there is oil inside – we squeeze to get the oil out and make use of it! We are not being tried and tested – we are in a difficult situation to enable us to grow and become stronger.
Let us be clear – we never seek challenge, in fact we pray every day that we should not be given tests. Too much pressure on the olive and you end up with a useless messy pulp. Not enough and nothing is extracted. It requires careful precision with just the right amount of force to extract the purest oil. But when we find ourselves in situations that the Almighty clearly put us in, we should know that the burden we feel is not just one we can withstand but is a burden that will help us extract our amazing potential.
This is not merely a platitude to try and lessen our sense of suffering – it is a fundamental part of Jewish belief. Yesterday I stood in a crowd of over 100,000 people, marching against antisemitism and all of us know that our world has irreversibly shifted since 7th October. We may have connected more to prayer, to giving, to learning, to other mitzvot or to all of the above – whatever it is, we have found ourselves doing more and reaching higher than we were before.
This war is sadly far from over and as we enter the eighth week I remind myself each day that the ache in my heart for Israel, the weight of anxiety that pervades life at the moment and the struggle of living in a world that, at best, just does not care, all of this is Hashem’s gentle nudge to help us grow.