Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Offering Hope

Everyone needs hope. We cannot survive without it. At times our hope may be simple,just getting home and seeing our family after a hard day at work. At other times, more stressful and depleting, our hope may be more esoteric. We hope soon all our suffering will come to an end or perhaps that their will be a better future for us, if not in this world then in the next, or if we can't escape our suffering at least their will be a brighter future for our children. But no matter where or when, human beings have a need for hope and one way or another,be it fanciful or real we will find it.

I was made conscious of the struggle for hope when I looked over the early verses of this weeks Parsha of Va'eira. You may recall the Parsha opens with Hashem rebuking Moshe for his challenge to the way things were going. At the end of last week's reading Moshe complained to G-d that since being sent to redeem the Israelites things had only gotten worse for them. Hashem tells Moshe at the outset of Va'eira that he needs to have the faith of the Patriarchs who never questioned Hashem's ways even when they seemed inscrutable.

At the end of Hashem's rebuke He once again sent Moshe on his mission and demanded that he tell the Israelites that indeed they will be redeemed. No, more, much more, Moshe is commanded to tell them not only will they be redeemed, they will become G-d's special people, they will have a special providence, and that they will be brought into the land of Israel, the land of their ancestors to inherit it for themselves.

After charging Moshe with the responsibility to to share this glorious passage of promise with the children of Israel the Torah continues "And Moshe spoke so to the Children of Israel but they did not listen to Moshe due to their exhaustion and the hard work imposed on them".

I found it fascinating that here Moshe has a wondrous message of hope and redemption for the Israelites, a nation so burdened and oppressed, a message full of promise and inspiration. Yet they could not hang their hope on it. They were too beaten to listen. Didn't they need hope? If everyone needs hope, surely the oppressed need it. I know our ancestors were suffering and fatigued but you would think that would have made them more attune to the glorious message of the Divine promise.

The answer to the question teaches us much about hope both for ourselves and when offering it to others. Remember the Isaac Leib Peretz story Bantsche Shveig (Banstche the Silent). Briefly, it tells the tale of a simple minded Jew in the shtetle who was abused constantly for his limited intelligence, poverty, and for being a social misfit. For all the abuse heaped on him Bantsche remained silent, never uttering a harsh word in return nor uttering a complaint. When Bantsche died he was treated in heaven far differently than on earth. If here he was social reject totally maligned, in heaven he was seen as the purest and holiest of men, mostly because of his compelling self-control remaining silent to his tormentors and in the face of a life of abuse and adversity.

Peretz writes that in the Heavenly Court Bantsche was found deserving of great reward. After-all he was a true Tzaddik. Even Satan could not deny his saintliness. When the time came, the Heavenly Judges asked Bantsche what he might want for his prize in the World Eternal. Any request would be granted since it was indeed earned. Bantsche thought for a moment, Peretz writes, and then answered "Maybe I could have a hot roll and butter each day for breakfast". And with that Satan roared a great laugh for indeed he had won!

In many ways the story of Bantsche Shveig is a story about hope. Bantsche could have had anything. He was worthy of the best heaven could offer. But Bantsche's life had been so rough and so impoverished that he could not even hope for a true piece of heavenly bliss. In light of his life's struggle the most he could aspire to was the warm roll and butter. Hope for Bantsche was limited by his circumstances and its effect on his psyche.

The same was true for the Israelites in Egypt. Moshe brought to them the wondrous message from G-d, a message that included becoming a G-d's chosen nation, and inheriting a new land of their own. Beautiful words, but words that spoke to more than the People could hear. The People in their time of persecution and abject slavery could only hope for an end to their suffering. They could not even imagine the larger vision offered them. It was beyond their horizon.
It is no wonder that the next time Hashem sends Moshe back to the People to again deliver the message of hope, a few verses later, he is commanded to simply redeem the people from Egypt, no more and no less. That they could hear!

Often we see people who are struggling. Life is hard for them. Perhaps they are dealing with a terminal illness, or a terminal marriage.Perhaps they are feeling overwhelmed with financial burdens or a lack of success in their endeavours. We want to offer hope. We know they need hope. The message we take from the Parsha of this week is that any hope we might offer can only be received and held on to if it is within the mindset of the sufferer.

To offer someone who is dealing with paralysis after a stroke the hope that they might yet run a marathon and go on to cite some athlete who did so, may be beyond the ability of the paralyzed one to hang on to. It might well be better to keep the hope closer to where the person is now. Perhaps a hope the other could hear would be the hope that they will yet walk again and cite some neighbor we know of similar age and circumstances who made such progress. Pancreatic cancer is fatal. No one has been cured of it. Offerring hope to one sufferring a fatal cancer might better be found in the hope of making the most of the time left, than a hope based on miraculous recovery (though some patients may prefer to pin their hope on a miracle as unrealistic as that is).

The key is, while hope is vital for everyone, the hope we offer the other needs to be consistant with where they are and with what they find possible in light of the circumstances they are living. Yes, offerring another hope is a gift, but the angels, no matter how they may have wished, could not offer Bantsche a hope more than he could imagine, and even Hashem's promise so glorious fell on deaf ears to our ancestors who were slaves in Egypt and had not the mindset to hear.

Shabbat Shalom

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