‘Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible’

“Ah, right, we don’t say supplication prayers today because we’re approaching Passover — hurray.” This has been the daily reaction at morning minyan all week long. Worshipers are delightfully surprised to be reminded that we can omit ‘beseeching God’s forgiveness’ (tachanun) this month. The month when we re-enact our emancipation from Egypt is incompatible with pleading for Divine compassion for our failings.

This got me thinking about how we tell stories.  When asked to tell our life story, do we do it linearly or with lots of ups and downs?  Do we tell of unlikely and inspiring outcomes?  Do we include setbacks?

Our sages instruct us to make our Seder storytelling “begin with degradation and end with praise” (Talmud).  Humbling beginnings as wanderers, idolaters and slaves, culminate with deliverance and devotion.  A straightforward telling brings us from slavery to freedom.  Yet often the journey toward brighter tomorrows is rife with reversals.  This is why the Seder also includes another telling by Joshua (Ch. 24): “From the beginning our ancestors were idolaters.” The fuller version of this telling highlights many more failures and disappointments along the way.

Elijah appears at the end of this week’s prophetic reading.  The end of the story is the place where Elijah belongs.  The Seder’s favorite Prophet is always invited to evoke more hopeful endings.  Curiously, this was not how Elijah’s tenure on earth ended.  He left this world doubting the future of the Jewish People.  The dejected Prophet complained to God about Israelite unfaithfulness, going so far as to assert, “I alone am left” (I Kings 19:10).  Even the biblical personality who is perennially associated with hope experienced deep despair.  Yet, his heavenward ascension came to signify his eventual return. This transformed Elijah into the foremost sponsor of hope.

It helps to realize that we are veterans at resilience, that we are seasoned at surmounting obstacles.  Such an awareness is vital.  It was George Orwell who once wrote: ‘Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible.”

If you don’t like how a story seems to end.  Muster the resolve to do something about it.  Strive to act in ways that turn the end of a story into the middle of it.

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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