Difficult times can make us stronger and more resilient

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Exodus 6:2-9:35
Numbers 28:9-15
Isaiah 66:1-24

He failed in business in 1831 and ’34; lost political races in ’32 and ’38; mourned the death of his sweetheart in ’35; had a nervous breakdown in ’36; was defeated in the congressional elections of ’43, ’46 and ’48; was beaten in senatorial elections of ’55 and ’58 and was defeated as a vice-presidential candidate in ’56.

But Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States in 1860; it is by victory and not by loss that he is remembered.

Reflecting on a 30-year career of failure and defeat, Lincoln said, “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be” — a comment that also could be applied to Moses, the protagonist in Vaera, this week’s Torah portion.

Like Lincoln, Moses faced so many challenges that he questioned whether or not he ever could be successful or happy: his concern about how he could convince the Israelites that God is real (Exodus 3:13); the Israelites’ bitter complaints about their diet of tasteless manna, the lack of fresh provisions (Num. 11:4-6) and complaints about thirst (Ex. 15:24; 17:3ff) during their trek through the desert.

Moses commented, “I cannot carry the weight of this people all by myself, for it is too much for me” (Num. 11:14); “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). Moses further doubted his abilities, saying, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

It is thus no surprise that Moses lamented, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?” (Ex. 6:12). Nevertheless, God refused to take “No” for an answer, saying, “Who gives people their speech? Who makes them dumb, hearing or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11). Even so, Moses feared that he would not succeed; even after reluctantly accepting God’s assignment, he despaired: “Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, it has gone worse with this people” (Exodus 5:23).

At one point, God sought to kill Moses (Ex. 4:24). Later, Moses thought he would welcome death rather than face continuing complaints: “If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Num. 11:14-15).

When Moses descended from Mt. Sinai and saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, he was so enraged that he shattered the tablets of the law at the foot of the mountain (Ex. 32:19). Nevertheless, even though Moses had had enough of the Israelites, at that moment, he attempted to ameliorate God’s rage: “Let not your anger blaze forth against your people” (Ex. 32:11-13).

Lillian Rubin, author of “The Transcendent Child: Tales of Triumph Over the Past,” defines resilience as the ability to “fall down seven times, and get up eight.” But resilience is more than just getting up after being knocked down time after time. In “A Farewell to Arms,” Ernest Hemingway described how his protagonist, Frederick Henry, saw himself: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

From this perspective, resilience is more than bouncing back after adversity and defeat, more than the ability to recover previous emotional shape after it has been physically and psychologically stretched. Like scar tissue that is stronger than the healthy tissue it replaces, some individuals discover inner strength and are made stronger by difficult times that enable them to rise and meet even greater challenges.

A contemporary lament, “Been down so long it looks like up to me,” is not one that Lincoln, Moses and other great leaders who faced adversity would have subscribed to. Instead, resilient people like them find comfort and strength in words that are offered by the psalmist: “I lift my eyes unto the hills, from whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth.”

The next time they are discouraged, serious students of the Torah would do well to keep in mind the words of the psalmist as well as the lives of Lincoln, Moses and others who have faced adversity with determination.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.