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One Day at a Time: Finding Hope Amid Powerlessness©

Parashat Bo

We are now 105 days since October 7. For the hostages still being held in abhorrent conditions, many in tunnels underground, where Red Cross representatives cannot check them, it has been 2496 hours of constant fear. But for everyone else who isn’t being held hostage, who may not have lost a relative in combat, who isn’t displaced from their home, life has returned to a weird normal, even in Israel. I was speaking with a friend in Israel who was telling me about what life was like. We both spoke about how difficult it is to watch the news about Israel and that the hopeful stories are just not doing it for us. 

And honestly, what we felt was a sense of powerlessness. 

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and one of my favorite thought leaders wrote about this feeling in an op-ed for the New York Times, “That Numbness You’re Feeling? There’s a Word for It.”

In mid-October, a few days after the attack on Israel, a friend sent me a text from a rabbi. She said she couldn’t look away from the horror on the news but felt completely numb. She was struggling to feel even the tiniest bit useful: “What can I even do?”

He writes: 

“Inaction isn’t always caused by apathy. It can also be the product of empathy. More specifically, it can be the result of what psychologists call empathic distress: hurting for others while feeling unable to help. Empathic distress explains why many people have checked out in the wake of these tragedies. The small gestures they could make seem like an exercise in futility. Giving to charity feels like a drop in the ocean. Posting on social media is poking a hornet’s nest. Having concluded that nothing they do will make a difference, they start to become indifferent.”

Not surprisingly, there are hints of our current situation in everything, especially this week’s parashah.

We are amid the ten plagues, but the people don’t know that there will be ten plagues. The Nile turned into blood, an attack against the Egyptian God of life, and Pharaoh still would not let the people go. Then came the frogs that swarmed the country, which represented the God of Israel defeating the frog-headed Egyptian goddess Hecht, and still, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he wouldn’t let them go. 

Plague after plague, when it seemed like the God of Israel defeated a false god of Egypt, Pharaoh never gave up. Imagine how you would feel if you were a Hebrew slave. Sure, your enemies may be dying, but so are you, and you’re in the same situation as you were before. They must have thought - is this ever going to end?

If you could identify a feeling, what would you say it was:

Hopeless, despondent, numbness?

But God and Moses did something about it. This week’s parashah Bo, moves beyond the plagues to something more important, a miracle that we often don’t view as such. Immediately after the plague of darkness, we are introduced to two central ideas, tools that God gives us to face powerlessness and oppression, and they are the following:

Sacred Time and Sacred Symbols 

In chapter 12, the people finally see the light at the end of the tunnel with instructions for preparing for the Exodus. The first thing they are asked to do, before we learn about the Pascal offering and the blood on the doorways or about Passover, we read (Exodus 12:1-2)

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֵאמֹר׃

The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

There are different theories as to why we read this first. Rashi says the Torah should have begun with this line because it is the first commandment for the Jewish people exclusively. So maybe the first step into freedom was to build a sense of obligation to a higher power, to God, rather than an evil king. Perhaps it was a message to the slaves - the first step to freedom is to be in control over your time. In other words, you control your calendar and when you want to rest. 

The first day we are told to observe is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month. This makes sense because the moon is like the ultimate hourglass - you know where you are in the year just by looking up at the moon. Now, imagine if you look up but need something to look forward to.

Jewish comedian Moshe Kasher spoke about this idea in his new book, Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16.

On the unorthodox podcast, Kasher spoke about his struggle with substance abuse, and how it informs his life. Kasher almost lost his life to an overdose when he was just 16 years old, and since then, he has remained sober. He spoke about how he saw the Jewish people’s journey and how he learned from it to help him in his struggles. Channeling his inner Ahad HaAm who famously said, “Just as much as the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews,” he said, 

“I don't think we would've survived the history that we had either, and it ties into my sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the most powerful ideas in AA is that they tell you one day at a time, which sounds like a cliche, but it isn’t because staying sober forever is an impossible ask, It cannot be done, but anyone can stay sober for 24 hours, so you just say don't worry, stay sober for 24 hours. I see something similar in the Jewish people’s relationship with Shabbat.  I feel like without Shabbat, we wouldn’t be here. Shabbat was like a secret superpower that we had that we didn't even know was a superpower. What I say in the book is all through the 2000 years of Diaspora and wandering and suffering Jews everywhere from Tunis to Warsaw to Berlin to Jerusalem had only six days or less to look into the future to know that something beautiful was coming; that there was a chicken meal, a bowl of cholent and some delicious Challah waiting for them. Without that bite-sized version of optimism, which is, “We are six days away from Shabbat, Shabbat is coming. This is the way to survival, to look forward to the positive and beautiful things in the world and not becoming overwhelmed by the ugliness.”

And this was what the slaves could look forward to: a new month when they would look up to the moon and know that they would no longer be looking down the next day at the mud and straw of the bricks and the beatings from an Egyptian taskmaster. And they could look forward to celebratory times and, yes, to a weekly reminder of heaven on earth - Shabbat, a day of rest. 

Even though we have been counting every day since October 7, and today is day 105, we must also be counting toward something, and that day is when we will be victorious. We just hold on to that hope that one day, the end of this war and the return of the hostages will come. 

The problem is, time is real, but you can’t touch it or see it. How can you look forward to something that you can’t even see? And so after we read about Rosh Chodesh, and the holiday of Passover, we read about something physical, Tefillin:

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל־יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְי בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ יְי מִמִּצְרָיִם׃

“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead—in order that the Teaching of the LORD may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand the LORD freed you from Egypt.

וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת־הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה׃ {פ}

You shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year.

  • Exodus 13:9 - 10

We will be learning all about tefillin during our World Wide Wrap on Super Bowl Sunday, but I wanted to share how tefillin became a symbol of hope for me. My grandfather Frank was adamant that he purchase a set of tefillin for me when I became a bar mitzvah, and when he gave them to me, he told me the first story he ever told me about his experience during the Holocaust. 

He was interned in several slave labor camps before he was interned at the Mauthausen concentration camp.  He told me that before their long, grueling, and dangerous day of slave labor would begin, a group of prisoners would wake up an hour before work, look for the first signs of daylight, put on their tefillin, and daven Shacharit. In 1943, as a 19-year-old, he joined that minyan group of men. 

Frankly, when he told me this, I was shocked and deeply moved: 

“Grandpa, why would you pray, with tefillin no less, when you were in a slave labor camp, and the reason you were a “slave” was because you were a Jew?”  He told me something that I will always keep with me.  He told me,” You had to pray and use your tefillin, because it reminded you of better times, in the past, and ahead.  We used our tefillin before the war, and we knew it was something you just did every day.  We would look at each other during Shacharit, and we just knew that at least one of us would survive.  Everything was taken from us except for our tefillin.  Money, nice clothes, possessions, they meant nothing anymore, but when we put on the tefillin, then, for a few brief moments every day, we felt free.” He doesn’t know what happened to those men in that minyan, but he survived. 

Tefillin are described as an Ot, a symbol, a daily reminder. 

Ramban, Nachmonides, writes that tefillin are a small miracle.  He commented that God will not perform signs and wonders like the ten plagues in every generation to prove the doubters.  So we wear these tefillin as a daily reminder of what God did for us, and what we witnessed with our own eyes.  And we impart this to our children, and their children, and their children, until the last generation.”  

Our tefillin connect us to the Exodus from Egypt, our paradigm for freedom, and so when my grandfather put on his Tefillin in those dark days of slavery, he felt a few minutes of that same freedom.  They give us a dose of freedom and hope every day we put them on.

And freedom and hope come one day at a time.   

As we navigate through these challenging times, much like the Hebrew slaves in the land of Egypt, we find ourselves grappling with feelings of powerlessness, despair, and that ever-persistent numbness. The echoes of empathic distress are heard in our collective struggle to make a difference, to find hope amidst the pain we see around us. 

But we have same tools that our ancestors did. If they made it, so will we. We can take it one day at a time having the faith that just as our ancestors were redeemed, so too will we be redeemed. Tefillin teach us about the small miracles that we can create with our hands, which continue to impart the story of our liberation to generations. As my grandfather, Frank, experienced during the darkest days of the Holocaust, these sacred objects were not just religious artifacts; they became beacons of hope, a connection to freedom in a world of oppression.

As we count the days since October 7 and strive to hold on to hope, let us not forget our hidden weapons of hope. May these ancient practices guide us, offering moments of freedom and hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. As we face the unknown, let us embrace the sacred rhythms of time and the tangible reminders of our resilience, knowing that, like the Israelites, we too can emerge from the darkness into the light of a new day.

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