This Shabbat is my mother’s yahrzeit, 32 years since she died on January 2. I can’t bear to observe in on her Hebrew date (7 Tevet, while January 2, 2014 falls on 1 Shvat), because I can’t bear observing it twice, and dying the day after New Year’s Day makes the Gregorian date indelible.
My mother dealt with depression most of my life, if not her own. And so, as we read Vaera (And I appeared), the second portion of the book of Exodus (Shmot), I found myself stuck at the end of the very first paragraph. G!d is busy instructing Moses about what to tell the Israelites about their coming redemption: The Eternal will take us as G!d’s people and will redeem us with a strong arm and many chastisements. It will be quite the scene as we come out of slavery. But when Moses goes to share the good news with the people, we don’t listen (lo shamu), because our spirit, our ruach, is short or impatient (translated by the Jewish Publication Society as “crushed”) by cruel bondage (Ex. 6:9).
I am struck that the Hebrew word kotzair is only used in this form in this place, but comes from a verb that means short or impatient. It is as though their spirit had shrunk from their heavy bondage.
They were so crushed they couldn’t respond to Moses’ message that hope and help were on the way. Cruel bondage can do that to you—be it poverty, a pimp, an addiction, the need to control your environment, depression, anxiety.
They were so crushed they couldn’t hear: shamu comes from the same word as Shema–listen, hear, focus, be aware—the word that calls us to attention. But the Israelites at that time could not do so. How many of us reach a point sometimes, in the depths, when our spirit feels so crushed, so small, so empty, that we can’t hear the words of hope and help that come our way?
Rather than respond directly to the information that the Israelites didn’t attend to Moses’ great message, G!d took another tack. The Eternal told Moses to focus next on Pharaoh—“Go and tell Pharaoh to let this people depart” (Ex. 6:11). Recognizing, I think, that the people needed more than words of encouragement, the Holy Blessed One moved on to Step 2 of liberation: the signs and wonders, the plagues, the physical manifestations of the message. The Eternal now meant to show that the message was more than hopeful, it was real: give the children of Israel more than words, give them clear signs that change was coming.
The Holy One created the universe with words: “Let there be…” and there was. Words create reality and change reality. Wedding vows and blessings turn two individuals into a sanctified couple. Words on a page tell us whether we have been admitted to college or graduate school, changing our life experience.
But sometimes, for some of us, our spirits are so crushed, we can’t hear the words. We have to wait until the experience of life around us shows us that change is not only possible, but happening around us right now. Sometimes we are like the people of Missouri—only when we are shown the way can we believe it.
The holiday season can be a cruel time for many people, away from their family, rejected by their family, alone, disappointed. If you are one of those people, please reach out. If you know one of those people, please reach out. Show people you care, don’t just say the words. Be the one who goes beyond the surface, and offers a new reality.
Shabbat shalom and happy 2014! May it be filled with love, peace, sustenance and the hope and encouragement you need.