The enduring power of hope

The enduring power of hope

Va’era — Exodus 6:2-9:35

Image by Clarissa Hamilton
Image by Clarissa Hamilton

My mother, of blessed memory, instilled in me a Yiddish proverb comparing two kinds of people who fail to do the right thing. The “nisht ken’r” (who “doesn’t know” how); and the “nisht vil’r” (who is “unwilling” to do it, or even to find out how). The nisht vil’r, she would say, is worse than the nisht ken’r, “Unwilling is worse than unable.”

I understood the nisht ken’r: someone who didn’t know how would obviously fail at the task. But the nisht vil’r was a mystery. For the life of me, I could not fathom why someone wouldn’t want to do it. I couldn’t pitch for the New York Yankees, I knew (I was just a child, remember), but if I could, for sure I would! Later, as a teenager, I applied the lesson to giving charity (tzedakah). My family wasn’t rich enough to help everyone in need. But why would anyone who had the money not want to give it?

As an adult now, I find it striking that we all sometimes pass up doing the right thing, just because we lack the will. We are unwilling, often, even to help ourselves: we get stuck in self-destructive habits; we fail to phone the doctor, make a dentist appointment, or pay our debts on time; not because we can’t but because we seemingly just won’t. We are not nisht ken’rs (we don’t lack the ability); we are nisht vil’rs (we somehow lack the will).

How is that possible?

One answer comes from commentaries on the plague that turned the Nile into blood. Exodus 7:21 reports, straightforwardly, “The Egyptians could not drink the Nile’s water.” Just three verses earlier, however (Exodus 7:18), the same information is given, but with a strange verbal construction, best “translated” by converting the English adjective “impossible” into a transitive verb. The plague, God promises, will “‘impossible’ the Egyptians from drinking the water.”

They “were ‘impossibled,’” Rashi explains, not because “they couldn’t find a solution (a ‘refuah’),” but because they lacked the will to try. Consider the Egyptians back then: the most scientifically adept people in the world, designers of pyramids, experts in papyrus creation and glassblowing, leaders in medical breakthroughs. Why then, when it came to ending this plague, did they give up trying?

The cause of their failure comes in the very next verse (7:19), which insists that the plague infected not just Egypt’s rivers, but also every “gathering place” of water, every mikvah (in Hebrew). But mikvah also means “hope,” as in “Mikveh Israel,” the title of several synagogues, including the “synagogue of the American revolution,” as it describes itself, the oldest synagogue in Philadelphia — not the “Water-gathering of Israel,” but the “Hope of Israel.”

The plague did more than pollute Egypt’s water; it also polluted Egypt’s hope, and when hope is gone, we do indeed become nisht vil’rs, people who lack even the will to seek solutions for life’s problems.

The Hebrew noun that Rashi uses for “solution” is refuah, “healing,” a word that evokes the imagery of illness and suffering. His point is that even the trauma of being struck down by long-term pain or chronic disability is least partially mitigated, as long as we have hope that a cure may still be found. Suffering, after all, though a state of affairs, is also a state of mind. Hope cannot end suffering, but it can make suffering sufferable. God no longer requires sacrifices, the midrash says; instead, God asks us for hope. For good reason the State of Israel’s national anthem is Hatikvah, “The Hope.”

The reason the Egyptians did not purge their water of the cursed blood was not their lack of know-how; it was their lack of hope, which robbed them of the will to keep on trying. As long as there is life, there is hope, says the Talmud. It is also true that as long as there is hope, there is life.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and a professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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