There are times in life when we are seemingly challenged beyond our capacity to cope. We may be dealing with a sick parent, a wayward child, a financial calamity or problems with a spouse. This may lead to feelings of despair and discouragement to the point where, even if a solution presents itself, we may be too despondent to even see the opportunity. This seems to have occurred in this week’s parsha of Va’era. Hashem sends his prophet Moshe to announce the coming redemption. He should have been greeted joyously. Instead, the “children of Israel did not heed Moshe because they were discouraged and despondent...” (6:9).
Dr. Martin Seligman, a noted psychologist, coined the phrase “learned helplessness.” This refers to a pattern of negative thinking where we become accustomed to feeling helpless and hopeless despite alternative coping methods being available. The person who had learned to be helpless does not even try. He is no longer open to productive interventions. The Jewish nation, having been beaten with hard work, had learned to be helpless and hopeless.
Another instance depicted in the Tanach of a despondent individual was Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth. In the megillah of Ruth we learn that Naomi’s name means “the pleasant one.” However, after losing her husband, her sons and going hungry she returned to her homeland and insisted that everyone call her by her new name, Mara. Mara means “the embittered one.” When she first returned to Bethlehem she was depressed, discouraged and embittered. She too was paralyzed with indecision, gloom and doom.
However, we soon read that she started playing a pivotal role in the life of her daughter-in-law Ruth. She began giving her advice about Boaz. She played the role of the matchmaker. Things went so well that Ruth and Boaz were eventually married. Ruth gave birth to a son, Oved, who was ultimately raised by Naomi. In fact, we are amazed to discover that Naomi was filled with milk and was able to nurse him.
What took place here? Apparently, Naomi only had a short-lived “pity party.” She then went on to take decisive action to better her life and the life of her daughter-in-law. As a result, the dynasty of King David was ultimately established.
Raish Lakesh, one of the sages of the Talmud, stated that if a prophet becomes emotionally upset he can no longer be capable of receiving his prophetic vision (Pesachim 66b). The Rambam makes note of the prophets, such as Elisha, who prepared themselves for nevuah by playing uplifting music so that they would be in a happier mood (II Kings 3:15). Our Sages tell us that a prerequisite to receiving prophecy is being in a calm and stable mood. When one is not in a stable mood and subsequently suppresses or does not follow a prophecy, dire consequences follow (Sanhedrin 89a).
While Moshe was prepared to impart his prophecy when he first arrived in Egypt, the Jewish people were apparently not yet ready to receive it. They were discouraged and despondent due to decades of punishing labor that caused them to despair. In effect, their negative emotional state caused them to not be ready to receive the nevuah of Moshe. The dire consequence of not accepting Moshe’s prophecy included their having to wait much longer for the redemption to arrive. Furthermore, even when it did arrive, a sizeable portion of the Jewish population never made it out of Egypt.
Like Naomi, let us learn to take action when we are faced with daunting challenges in life. Let us avoid falling into the rut of learned helplessness, which can paralyze us with indecision and feelings of gloom and doom. When opportunities for coping are presented by Hashem, let us be open to accepting the possibilities of changing for the better. Like Elisha, we need to proactively strive to be in as good a mood as possible so that we can recognize Hashem’s yeshua when it arrives. Finally, just as the Jewish nation was redeemed when they accepted Moshe’s prophecy, so too may we all be redeemed from any negative emotions that might be keeping us enslaved to a less-than-optimal life as we hope for the arrival of Moshiach.
By Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg
Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic clinical psychologist and an avid motorcyclist. He leads the Summit Avenue Shabbos Gemara shiur and minyan in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. He can be contacted at [email protected].