Friday, January 4, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5779–Yet Again, Crushed Spirits


In 2000, I wrote a musing entitled “Crushed Spirits.” I revisited it again in 2007 during the Dubya years. In these Trumpian times it certainly feels like just the right time to visit it again.


This musing is dedicated to the memory of Art Buchwald, z"l.
And in that spirit, I commend to you my Monty-Pythonesque musing from last year, "
Why Tomorrow?" [2019 note: I have linked to a more recent version of that musing from 2016]

Seven years ago (in 2000,) I wrote a musing for this parasha called "Miqotzer Ruach - Crushed Spirits." At the time, it provided solace for my own crushed spirits, in a world gone far astray. I began: "That's just the way it is; we can't change it!" I can't think of a more depressing sentence in the English language. When spirits are crushed, when hopes are dashed, how does one live each day?"

I face the same question still today, and the fuel and sustenance I provided myself through that musing is wearing thin. So I thought I would take another look, see if I can reinforce my sagging spirits and conquer my rising cynicism.

[2019]  How much more so is this true today. While the restoration of Democratic control to the House of Representatives may mark the beginning of a more hopeful time, these past two years have certainly resulted in more crushed spirits for me.


"Our Holy Torah tells us that when Moshe told B'nei Yisrael that G"d would redeem them, they "would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage." (Ex. 6:9 JTS) (lo sham-u el Moshe miqotzer ruach u-mei'avodah kasha)

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃.

We live in an era of receding boundaries. Our willingness to stand up for what is right has been hammered into submission through decades of political correctness and tolerance and over-saturation from noise and images, and commercially-induced cynicism. Each and every day our tolerance of bad behavior, poor service, unfair practices, violence, oppression, hate, substandard work and products, etc. increases, dulling our ability, willingness and even interest in working to change what we perceive as immutable.

I, too, despair of the world situation. I, too, have a "crushed spirit" and a cynical attitude. For many, this translates into abandonment of religion, as proof that G"d is powerless to stop the madness. For me, at one time, the effect was exactly the opposite. It had drawn me deeper into Judaism, study, and religious practice."


Once again, I am in despair of the world situation. Our president is practicing escalatio on the Iraqis (it's a Tom Lehrer quote.) I am hoping that by reviewing my own words from 2000, I can help counter the renewed effects of a world gone mad. Then again, that was a pre 9/11 world. A pre war in Afghanistan and Iraq world. A pre Darfur world. A pre nuclear North Korea world. Still, perhaps I can find some hope.


As a friend of mine is fond of remarking, every time she hits a new bottom, that she falls through to find yet a lower bottom. That is what it feels like to me here in January 2019. It goes from bad to worse day by day. Down is up. Black is white. Fiction is fact. Lie is truth. Finding hope becomes increasingly harder. Our country has been hijacked, and its basic values and beliefs are challenged, derided, mocked, and ignored on a daily basis. Add in what Judaism teaches us (or even what Christianity teaches Christians) and it only gets worse. How could we let this happen? I know there are those who believe that invoking a comparison to the rise of Nazi power demeans the utter evil that it was, but what is happening now could lead to a similar evil. Already the cracks are showing, the edges are fraying. The muzzling and derision of a free press. The incitement of hatred against “the other.” The lies told with impunity. It not only can happen here, it is happening. We must stay ever vigilant to insure “never again” (and not just for the Jews, but for everyone.)

Like the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, I am feeling a shortness of spirit that prevents me from hearing the positive messages and calls to action of the prophets among us. What will it take to help me remove the metaphorical cotton from my ears so that I can hear again?

[2000] I wrote:

"Hope. Hope is what religion is all about. A place for hope. A space for hope. I recall a final paper I was required to write for a theology class. As I worked with a TA to help me hone my thoughts, we discussed what I perceived to be the ultimate purpose of theology. In the end, we came to see that, for me, theology is ultimately about providing a place for hope.

Reading how the B'nei Yisrael fail to hear to G"d's promise through Moshe, one sees how hope can easily be strangled. So despairing were the people that they could not even hear Moshe's words. When we close our ears to the din around us, we also close it to that "still small voice" and to the chance of hearing Elijah's voice make that long-awaited announcement. When we close our eyes to the evil that perpetuates in our society, we also close them to visions of a repaired world. Worse yet is when we go about with our eyes open, ignoring what we see, believing we cannot change it, or that it will never change. When we fold our arms tight and turn our backs to all the madness, immorality and lack of righteousness in despair and frustration and hopelessness, we exclude ourselves from participating in the process of tikkun olam. "


I think I'm right. To just sit here and brood over Dubya's war, about genocide in Darfur, about Israel electing a government more inclined to make peace and the Palestinians electing Hamas to lead them, about how Israel has become so like the U.S. that it blew the summer conflict with Hezbollah, and so on and so forth does little except make me more sullen and depressed. There must be a way out of all this mess.


There may be a way out, but it’s a long and winding road. The difficulties of 2007 seem to pale by comparison to how our current reality has been torn asunder. Things in Israel are even worse. Its government is not only corrupt, it has become its own obstacle to peace. Israel’s ruling leadership has become its own worst enemy. Here in this country we pursue a policy – no, strike that – it’s not a policy. We pursue the random gut reactions of a petulant child with the powers of the presidency of the most powerful nation on the planet. Maybe hope is on the horizon. Maybe the Mueller report will give our representatives in Congress the ammunition they need to put a stop to this ongoing coup d’etat.

There is another aspect here – that of the false prophet. Far too many among us seemed to have fallen prey to the siren of this false prophet. No Moses or Aharon he. An ertswhile Korach, perhaps (although I have written before that Korach gets somewhat of an undeserved bad rap. Challenge to authority is not, per se, a bad thing, even if that authority is G”d. The downside is that G”d doesn’t seem to take well to authority challenges. Why, there are times in the Torah that even G”d’s actions seem somewhat-dare I say-Trumpian.  Playing Pharaoh like a yo-yo by hardening his heart feels an awfully lot like the political yo-yo arts practiced by the flipper-in-chief. Ouch.)

[2000] I wrote:

"For those who have given up on G"d, there is naught that I can offer to them.

But for those who still have a place in their theology for hope, look at the Exodus story. Discouraged by decades of slavery and oppression, the B'nei Yisrael were deaf to Moshe's words and G"d's promises. G"d could just as easily have said, "OK, fine. Not interested? I'll just pick some other people and go save them instead." But G"d did not do that. G"d had made a promise to us. And even though we were (and still are) quite remiss in holding up our end of the covenant, G"d still redeemed us. G"d did just as G"d said and brought us out of Egypt with an outstretched arm and wonders. That is a message of hope to the discouraged.

Yes, it has been many thousands of years since G"d did anything like this for us, the covenanted people. History, and particularly that of the last half of the 20th century has seen plenty of opportunity for G"d to work wonders and free Israel from its oppression. Maybe we are looking for the wrong miracles?

We've been pretty destructive as a species-to ourselves, one another, and our planet, and in the midst of it all the children of Israel have suffered greatly. Still, humankind has not blown itself up. The evil that was Hitler was defeated. A new Israel arose and is finally on the verge of peace."


Ah yes, that's me, Mr. Pollyanna. Mr. "Always look on the bright side of life." Mr. "Every cloud has a silver lining." He's always there, inside me, and manages to make appearances when I need him most. Yet I begin to weary of the platitudes. I do not know how much longer my inner Pollyanna will be able to sustain.

[2019] My inner Pollyanna is in very short supply these days. She rarely manages to peek out. So much so, that this is all I’m going to write here.

I would be remiss, however, if I did not take myself to task for saying in 2000 that I could not offer hope to those who have given up on G”d. G”d and religious faith can be a source of hope. G”d is not the sole source of hope in the universe.

Tangential to that notion is growing discomfort I have with those of religious faith who urge calm because all is in G”d’s hands. Yes, I understand that accepting such an idea can bring peace and hope for some. It doesn’t work for me. It doesn’t work for many. Thanks goodness for the rest on Tanakh, because the G”d described in Torah is not often the best place to look for hope.

Saying things are all in G”d’s hands is really a way for us to abdicate our own personal responsibility for what takes place in our world. John Pavolovitz says it best in this recent article: Christian, Stop Telling Me God is in Control

[2000] I wrote:

"Maybe the last 3500 years or so have been an extended version of more plagues being visited upon those who would challenge G"d. Each time, it appears, humanity's heart was hardened, and yet we refused to hear and obey G"d's command. What final plague will it take for humanity to finally acknowledge G"d and let G"d's people go to be what they were intended to be and live in the universe that G"d wants to build for us and with us."


It was a nice idea at the time. Yet the plagues continue. And the source that had become the support beneath my hope, this thing we call Judaism, has started to fail me. Each and every day I wake up determined to work hard to insure the continuity of Judaism and the Jewish people, through education. And each and every day, that task becomes harder. I see the interest of students and adults alike waning. I see their commitment faltering, and the balance shifting ever more towards a life in which Judaism, the synagogue, religious school, etc. play little, if any, part. The in-reach that Arthur Herzberg (z"l) always championed may turn out to be the right way to go. Yet I am not yet willing to give up on stemming the tide of exodus, and trying to reverse it.

Yes, I do have hope. I spend lots of time on the internet and the web. I like to observe the latest trends and happenings. I read blogs, and I blog myself. All around the world, young Jews are finding news ways to be Jewish, new structures, new connections. Though many might hate to admit it, the age of the synagogue, and the big national Jewish organizations may be drawing to a close. What will replace it? Can it be replaced? What would a non-synagogue-centered Jewish religious school look like? How would it work?

Or are the anti-cynics right in saying that when today's generation grows older and has kids, they'll find it easier to fall back on the existing structures within Judaism like synagogue, JCC, and Federations, rather than to try and maintain this new form of Judaism that is evolving. And then I must ask myself the question whether I would despair more at the the failure of the new Judaism or the death of the old? It's a tough question. I make my living in the synagogue world-yet I think I am beginning to champion and espouse a post-synagogue/Federation/UJC Judaism, even though I may never be able to earn a living from it. Still, it is a ray of hope for a different, and possibly brighter, future.

[2019] I’ve grown since writing that. I more openly embrace a present that is change in process and a future that may be very different. I was prescient in suggesting that making a living in the synagogue world has become increasingly difficult. What I didn’t anticipate is how equally difficult it might be for someone of my age, even with my forward-looking worldview to earn a living in this developing new Judaism. Yet there is a flourishing of Judaism in new forms, new places. Synagogues are struggling to keep up, to remain relevant, to find a way to integrate this new Judaism – but they are discovering it may not want to be integrated by them. At least for now, the old and the new must exist side by side. Pieces of the new will find their way to the old, and perhaps pieces of the old will find their way into the new. Nevertheless, I cannot help but believe that what it eventually becomes will not be what either camp expects. Me, I’m going to ride the crest of the wave. There is as much danger in that as there is remaining on shore, but I’d rather be in motion. That feels more hopeful than standing on shore, waiting to get swamped by the tsunami.

That said, I think I was on to something back in 2000. So why, I ask again, does G”d continue to harden all of humanity’s hearts such that we are forced to endure one horror after another? Yes, G”d was trying to make a point with Pharaoh, but it was as much a publicity and marketing stunt as anything else. But at what cost? The midrash tells us that G”d chastised the angels for celebrating the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the sea of reeds. We shouldn’t need a midrash to do that. G”d in Torah shouldn’t be a sadist. Time after time G”d seems to think that death and destruction are the best tools at G”d’s disposal. This is the lesson that G”d wants humanity to learn? No wonder we are such a violent, war-prone society. Don;t do us any more favors G”d. Stop hardening our hearts. You might actually discover we’ll learn the lesson faster that way. We’ll never know until You try.

[2000] I wrote:

"Hope. What a sweet word. Just like B'nei Yisrael in Egypt, we Jews have suffered from years of oppression. Yet, like them, we are still here. What we are not is "hear," just as they were. The hopeful thing is to believe, as I do, that even when we aren't listening, G"d is there, and G"d will keep the covenant. An even more hopeful (and enterprising) thing to do is to open our eyes, our eyes, our hands, our hearts and, working together with each other as partners with G"d, bring about tikkun olam. If we turn our crushed spirits into hopeful and determined ones, think how much more we might accomplish."


In 2007, the ever more cynical me says "now, G"d, would be a good time to act, do something to reassure my faith. I do not have the patience of my ancestors." But G"d acts on G"d's timetable, not mine. (Yes, I accept that, but it still sucks.)

I'm listening G"d. It's getting harder and harder. I'll keep trying, I really will. Help me find and renew my hope. Help me overcome my crushed spirit. Help us all to overcome our crushed spirits.


By the way, G”d, why DID it take You so long to hear and respond to the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt? You expect us to be listening all the time for your voice, but we cry our for a few centuries and You hear nothing (or chose to ignore what You heard.) OK, I;ve gottent hat off my chest.

I reminded myself this year of something I’ve always known but chose to overlook. “Crushed spirits” is probably not the best or most accurate translation of מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ. The root קֹּ֣צֶר  more accurately means “short” so this phrase is really “shortness of spirit.” That could indicate a despondency, a lack, an impatience. In fact, I think it represents all that and even more. An inability to maintain? A running short of resolve, of patience? The Hebrews could not hear Moshe and Aharon’s words because their spirits were all these things: short, impatient, disillusioned, despondent, despairing, feed up, hopeless. Surely people found themselves asking “where the eff is G”d?” The apologists and whitewashers would offer the typically placating “ G”d’s time scale is not our time scale” Not buying that anymore. G”d’s time scale is how long it takes for us to realize that we have to do the work and not wait for G”d to do it. That’s not a new viewpoint for me.

[2007, with a little 2019 editing]

in 2007 I wrote: Yet if I'm honest with myself, I know that it's not up to G"d, it's up to us. We must work to turn our crushed, disillusioned, impatient spirits into hopeful ones, as our ancestors did. So, in the end, what I wrote in 2000 remains true:

The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

©2019 (portions ©2000 and 2007) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this parasha:

Va'era 5778 - Careful the Words You Boast
Va'era 5777 - Alternative Facts (Not What You Think - Or Is It?)
Va'era 5776 - Why Tomorrow (Revised 5757/62/66)
Va'era 5775 - Brighton Beach Last Stop! (Revised)
Va'era 5774 - Tomorrow, Again
Va'era 5773 - Let Our People Go/Rendezvousing With Rama
Va'era 5772 - Got It!
Va'era 5771/5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5769 - Substitute
Va'era 5767-again, Crushed Spirits (Miqotzer Ruakh)
Va'era 5766-Why Tomorrow?
Va'era 5765-Brighton Beach-Last Stop!
Va'era 5764-Imperfect Perfection and Perfect Imperfection
Va'era 5763 - Pray for Me
Va'era 5761-Just Not Getting It
Va'era 5762-Early will I Seek You

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