This Too Shall Pass
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So, too, at the opposite end of the emotional continuum, I find myself saying, “This too shall pass.” We are all feeling stress, anxiety, fear, and frustration at levels we have never experienced before. A global pandemic that is nowhere near under control, now with an unprecedented spike in national and global numbers of afflicted. A political season that has gotten the best of our country. Tuesday’s election, whatever the outcome, has prompted stress levels, according to the most recent APA study, exceeded only by the fear of mass shootings and inaccessible health care. Gam zeh ya·avor, this too shall pass, I keep telling myself. If there has ever been a time that we need the soothing balm of historical perspective-taking, ours is such a time.
It is altogether understandable, and altogether human, that when we are in the extremes of joy or sorrow, that moment comes to totally occupy our field of vision. Our emotions are so intense, so all-encompassing, that we lose sight of the fact that this moment, in all its intensity, is but one moment sandwiched between an infinite number of moments preceding and following it. The source could be natural – like a pandemic – or it could be prompted by another person, or it could even be self-inflicted. The cancellation of summer camp or a semester turned online, a betrayal by someone we trusted, an academic or professional setback. Whatever the issue, whoever caused it, we assign it an eclipsing role in our self-definition; we lose sight of all that came before and all that is yet to come. We forget that there is no correspondence between the weather on one’s wedding day and the health of one’s marriage. We forget that as frustrating as it is for a semester to go online, it is a circumstance that is not indefinitely damning nor even defining in the long run. The rabbi at my bar mitzvah, God bless him, was a rent-a-rabbi, but my Judaism, I hope we can all agree, turned out all right. Those three hours were hardly determinative in shaping my Jewish identity. Throughout my childhood, I went to a speech therapist; now I earn my living through public speaking. It is not just that hindsight is twenty-twenty. Rather it is the resilience, wisdom, humility, and humanity that we can reap if we widen our vision from the intensity of any one setback – in the words of Irvin Yalom, “If we climb high enough [to] reach a height from which tragedy ceases to look tragic.” To say those three magic words: Gam zeh ya·avor, this too shall pass.
Nine times out ten, when we discuss this morning’s Torah reading, we focus on Genesis 12 and God’s call to Abram: Lekh l’kha, go forth! This morning, however, I want to draw your attention to Genesis 15 and a lesser-known exchange between God and Abram (yet to be renamed Abraham). Years have passed since that Lekh L’kha call, and while Abram has grown in wealth, the rest of God’s promises have not materialized. In fact, just the opposite. Abram has faced war, a family kidnapping, a famine, an indelicate marital challenge, a financial quarrel within his family, and, most painfully, he and his wife remain childless. All the blessings – land, progeny, and otherwise – unfulfilled. Filled with anxiety, Abram confronts God: Bamah edah ki irashenah? Loosely translated: How shall I know what will become of me? In an exchange referred to as brit bein ha-b’tarim, the Covenant Between the Pieces, God responds to Abram’s anguished plea by casting him into a deep sleep in which a divine vision is revealed: Your offspring, God explains, shall be strangers in a strange land for hundreds of years. They will be oppressed, but they will be redeemed, and their oppressors will be judged, and your offspring, Abram, long after your lifetime, will be assigned the land as promised. (15:7-21)
It is an enigmatic scene, but an exchange that I think carries great insight, not just into the nature of Abram and his angst-filled moment, but into our own. This is Abram at his most vulnerable, questioning the wisdom of his initial decision to follow God, filled with doubts about God and about, I imagine, himself. And to all Abram’s torment, God responds by granting him the one thing that Abram doesn’t even know he lacks: perspective. Perspective by way of a description of his descendants’ future. Abram, the promise I made to you, – it is a promise, but it is a promise that will be fulfilled beyond your length of years. This moment is a passing one. There is still a long road ahead and yes, things are going to get worse before they get better. But Abram, look at the big picture, there is a larger story taking place. It is not all bad, it is not forever, and frankly, it is not just about you. The chapters ahead, we know, will indeed be filled with challenges. Abram has yet to father children; he has yet to argue with God at Sodom and Gomorrah; he has yet to be called on by God to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah. It will be years before Abram becomes Abraham in both name and stature. But it is here, at this covenantal moment, that Abram understands that the journey of Lekh L’kha is not about any single destination in time or space. This too shall pass – this angst-filled moment doesn’t define you. This realization ultimately becomes Abram’s source of solace and strength and his beacon of hope as he moves forward in his life.
As descendants of Abraham, it has been this same realization – that whatever our present and passing anxiety, it exists in the context of a larger promise – that has been the calling card of our people ever since. When Isaac quarreled with his neighbors, when Jacob fled his brother Esau and lay his head on the rock that fearful evening, when Joseph found himself at the receiving end of his brothers’ abuse – in each and every instance, it is not so much that God intervened to resolve the issue at hand, but rather that God reminded our ancestors that whatever they were experiencing was not the sum total of their life story. Moses’s leadership was not marked by his oratorical powers or interpersonal skills. Moses was Moses because he was able to persuade the enslaved Israelites that there was an existence beyond the horizon that they could see in their bondage. It is why, in the midst of their frenetic flight from Egypt, Moses tells the Israelites of that future day when they will be called on by their children to recount this moment. What a strange request to make of a fugitive slave – until you realize that the goal of the Exodus was not the Exodus itself but the ability to recall it in the future. It is why every Passover, wherever a Jew finds him- or herself, in ease or agitation, we recall God’s enduring promise: V’hi she-amda, this promise that has endured. It is why, long before the establishment of the State of Israel, the anthem of our people was Hatikvah, meaning “the hope.” For two thousand years, through persecution, pogrom, and worse, in every Jewish heart, our hope is not lost. This is what it means to be a descendant of Abraham: to know that we are part of a bigger story and that our present troubles, whatever they are, will one day pass; they are not the sum total of our experience.
At this point, some of you may be hearing my words with some skepticism. “Rabbi,” you may be thinking, “the passage of time does not itself resolve problems.” In fact, you may be thinking, “Isn’t there something dangerously passive about a philosophy of ‘this too shall pass’? Is it not a sort of spiritual resignation?” That is a good question, a question to which I can only counsel that acknowledging that our station in life is temporary is a first step, not a final one. To believe that “this too shall pass” means to believe that things can change; that no problem is intractable; that history is not destiny; and that we can be transformed as individuals, families, and societies. To believe “this too shall pass” is not an abdication of responsibility, but just the opposite; it is an invitation for us to assert personal agency. To dust ourselves off, to adapt, adjust, and reinvent ourselves. If we are riding high, reminding ourselves that “this too shall pass” means we never become complacent; we never take our blessings for granted; and we are generous in spirit and deed because we know that there but for the grace of God go I. And when we are brought low, remembering “this too shall pass” is the soothing and stabilizing reminder that if we will it and if we work for it, then whatever it is we are experiencing, tomorrow and the tomorrow after that can be different than today.
Friends, I haven’t the slightest idea what is going to happen to our nation in the coming days. I suspect some of us will be happy, some of us will be sad, and none of us will have the answers as quickly as we would like. But whatever the outcome, in whatever column of emotion you place yourself, be sure to slip that magical ring onto your finger and breathe those words: Gam zeh ya·avor, this too shall pass. Your jubilation, your sorrow – this too will pass. Someday, soon enough, the shoe will be on the other foot. We all need to remember that it is our shared citizenship, not our partisan affiliation, that binds us together. Gam zeh ya·avor, this too shall pass. Our country has survived divisive and contested elections before, and we will again, as long as cooler heads and love of country govern the day. Gam zeh ya·avor, this too shall pass. Have some perspective. Whatever the present hurdle, we must see the arc of history beyond the horizon of our present crisis, and then we must bend it towards justice, working to realize the promise of what tomorrow can bring.
One final thought and a fact I neglected to share. When I was a kid, perhaps like many of you, I heard the story of Queen Esther and the ring in Hebrew school. (It was actually told about King Solomon, but it is about time Jewish stories undergo a generational gender course correction.) It was only recently that I discovered that the most famous retelling of the story was not by any rabbi in any synagogue, but at a Wisconsin State Fair in Milwaukee in 1859, when one speaker concluded his remarks as follows:
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’”
The speaker that day was Abraham Lincoln, who in the year ahead would be elected the sixteenth president of the United States. Both that day in Wisconsin and throughout his presidency, Lincoln understood that in order for some things, like national unity, to endure, other things, like partisan enmity, must be let pass.
And so too today, indeed. Fondly do we hope and fervently do we pray that the mighty scourges of this pandemic and of our political division speedily pass away, that we may bind up the nation’s wounds and turn our attention to the national promises that await fulfillment.