22 mars 2008

Gershon Winkler, To Cling or to Let Go (full text)

I found this great ancient midrash concerning four archetypes of the warrior in Jewish tradition. It goes like this—literal translation:

David said to God: "I am going to pursue my enemies and destroy them."

Assa said to God: "I have no strength to destroy my enemies, but I will pursue them, and leave the rest to you."

Yeho'shafaht said to God: "I have neither the strength to pursue my enemies nor to destroy them; I can only sing, and leave the rest to you."

Chizki'yahu said: "I have neither the strength to pursue my enemies nor to destroy them nor to sing. Rather, I will go to sleep in my bed and leave it ALL to you." (Source: Midrash Yal'kot Shim'onee, Shmu'el 2:22:163)

On one level, this teaching seems to address our varying capacities to overcome obstacles in our lives, deal head-on with challenges that come at us from time to time. Sometimes, we can be like David and—no holds barred—go out there, face the challenge head on and resolve it one, two, three. Period.

Sometimes, we react like Assa and go full force head to head with the obstacles in our lives, but that's about as far as we can take it. Then we grow tired, doubtful of our ability to take it all the way, and we back off, throw up our arms and leave it to God.

Other times we react like Yeho'shafaht and rather than even so much as try to make some kind of overt effort to tackle the obstacle, we put on some music and sing, or watch a movie.

And yet other times, we react like Chizki'yahu and are simply exasperate beyond beyond beyond, so weakened by a relentless series of unfortunate events that we have neither the strength left to pursue the problem, wrestle it through, or even sing, and all we can do is climb into bed and go to sleep and hope it goes away.

On a second level of understanding, the teaching seems to address varying degrees of faith, of trust, in God. Sometimes we trust so totally, as in the scenario of Chizki'yahu that God will handle it all and we can sleep peacefully knowing this.

Other times, as in the scenario of Yeho'shafaht, we have faith that God will take care of it all but only after we do a little spirit-boosting prayer song.

Yet other times we have faith that God will deal with our problems for us, as in the scenario of Assa, but only after we've put in a little effort on our own.

And finally there are times we have the faith that God will come through for us alongside us, meaning in congruent with the degree of effort we ourselves expend—that even if we do it all and on our own, we have the faith that our success was due to God's behind-the-scenes support, as in the scenario of David.

On a deeper level, however, the lesson goes like this: All four of these archetypal responses to challenge are one and the same, albeit in graduating phases of grappling with an issue.

We might start out like David, doing everything we possibly can, taking it all the way, sparing no effort, giving it all we've got and then some. Then, if the situation persists in spite of our best effort, we move into the phase of Assa and continue to cling tenaciously to the struggle, yet letting go of completely resolving it, leaving that part of it to God. Then, if the situation is still not dissipating, we move into the phase of Yeho'shafaht where we step back from exerting energies that we realize are going nowhere, and instead we concentrate on keeping our spirits high and in good form through the power of song and chant. Finally, if the situation still abounds, it's time to let go completely and get some sleep, surrender it totally into the hands of heaven, so to speak.

Sometimes it is far healthier to let go of something or someone before you are dropped. At some point of non-resolution it might be better to let go rather than cling indefinitely until your veins pop, until your knuckles grow red and your grasp develops blisters and your grip loosens from fatigue and you end up falling.

They say of our ancient prophet Joshua, Moses' foremost disciple and personal aide, that he clung tight to his master, never letting him out of his sight, always always following him, listening to every word he spoke, observing his every action, paying attention to his every nuance. When Moses was about to die, the ancient rabbis tell us, he said to Joshua: "I am about to leave this earthly plane. It is now time for you to ask me anything about what I have taught you that you do not understand, that you have some questions about, or doubts." Joshua replied: "Master, I have absolutely no doubts, no questions. I am filled with complete understanding and clarity around every single teaching you ever shared. I have never left your side in all these years, and therefore did not miss an iota of anything you taught." In that moment, the rabbis tell us, Joshua instantly forgot three hundred laws that Moses had taught him and became filled with doubt about his understanding regarding seven hundred lessons he had learned from Moses (Source: Talmud, Te'murah 16a).

Clinging to a situation to overcome it, or to master it, is a good thing. But to a point. At some point we need to release our grip and empty ourselves of our obsession with achievement, our obsession with winning, our obsession with resolving what refuses to budge. As the Talmud puts it: "Just as it is a good thing to say to someone that which we know will be heard, it is just as good a thing to NOT say to someone something which we know will NOT be heard" (Talmud, Yevamot 65b). In this account, Joshua felt totally confident that he had understood everything, that he had mastered his master's knowledge. He claimed ownership of and took credit for all of his sense of his own achievement in this regard, and left no space for the possibility that perhaps his uncanny capacity to retain all the information that Moses had imparted was due to God's enabling him to do so.

Of course, use your good judgment. Because there are always exceptions to the lesson; some things are worthy of and demand of us to fight it to the death. But in general, these teachings are very helpful for our day-to-day sanity.

In the Purim story (Purim happens this week Thursday night through Friday night), the Jewish people are helplessly slated for total annihilation. Their one hope, the fact that the queen of Persia (Esther) is one of them, hinges on her having the courage to approach the king uninvited, which might cost her her life. In the moment, she had become so immersed in her role as queen and all of the polity and protocol that went along with that role that she had not left any room for the possibility that God might have brought her to the palace to begin with so that she could rescue her people. Her uncle and mentor, Mordechai, had to remind her of this. Once she was reminded of this, Esther takes the above lessons to yet another level, and begins to plow through the phases of tackling the situation albeit in reverse, gradually moving from the total faith phase of Chizki'yahu and leaving it entirely in the hands of God, to the phase of Yeho'shafaht by instructing her people to pray, to the phase of Assa as she pursuing the villain Haman by inviting him to a face-to-face encounter, and finally to the climactic phase of David by confronting Haman head on and destroying him and his plot.

May we be gifted with the sense of when to cling and when to let go; when to move from David down to Chizki'yahu, and when to move from Chizki'yahu upward to David. Life is a dance. And the dance is definitely a tango. And Purim is definitely the time to tango.

Happy Purim.

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