Hardship and rebirth: Parashat Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

In these dark, cold days of winter, it’s so easy to lose hope. Add to this the hardships of loss, with which life seems intent on liberally sprinkling our lives, and we get something akin to paralysis. We may feel like a tree in winter, shorn of its leaves, standing still like death. Will spring ever come, and will we survive until it does?

The rabbis of the Talmud knew this place of emptiness and sought to ritualize the experience of awakening from winter’s fearful sleep with a message of new growth by pointing to the rising sap and first fruit buds in our orchards. This Shabbat we celebrate the 15th (written with the Hebrew letters “TU”) of the month of Shevat, Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees, as well as Shabbat Shirah, the return in our Torah reading of the Song of the Sea, with which the Israelites expressed their gratitude to HaShem for their escape from Egypt.

In our reading from Exodus this Shabbat, Beshalach, we find not God or Moses being credited with the exodus from Egypt, but Pharaoh — the ruler who refused to free the Israelite slaves through 10 plagues that destroyed his own economy and brought tragedy to every household. God then leads the Israelite people through 40 years of war and regrouping in the desert, saying this is what we need to shape us into a people ready to enter the Promised Land. 

Can obstacles, hardship and trauma actually contain the buds of our liberation? 

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, a German philosopher in the late 1800s. An article in Current Directions in Psychological Science says, yes, hardship is good for us. Loss allows us to develop the ability to cope through gratitude for what we still have. 

Psychology Today, on the other hand, ran an article saying that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker. It says the connection between hardship and strength building is a coincidence, like a chicken that pecks the same spot before random food drops in, hoping to re-create the chain of events. It’s not the calamity that hardens us, it says. If you’re stronger after, it’s despite — not because of — the trauma. Trauma exposure leads only to vulnerability and mental disorders down the road. Only tender love and care build character and adaptability, it says. 

So the jury is out as to whether the school of hard knocks provides a useful education. 

But there is a difference between hardship and suffering. According to Buddhist teaching, dukka, suffering, is not having bad things happen in your life. It is letting your mind dwell on them — being filled with worries, stresses, plans and panics. What matters is how we process our grief.

I visited a woman in the county jail with drug problems. She told me that since I last saw her, she had been released, hospitalized for an illness, prescribed a painkiller, and made the mistake of telling the nurses she wanted more. And here she was again, in jail, meeting me, just like before, except for one thing: She felt incredibly grateful. She could so easily have slipped back into her old addictive habits, but God had sent her a mighty hand in the form of further incarceration. She felt chastised for the good, and ready to see what else God had in store for her. 

The benefit of hardship, according to psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath, is not having had it, but the confidence gained from knowing you survived it and, perhaps, that you are part of something that cares about your survival. Similarly, Carl Jung wrote that the difference between suffering in vain and suffering productively is being able to give things a spiritual context. If we can find hope in the midst of darkness, if we can believe fervently that this time will pass and that there will be a meaning for it, we can get through it and become new on the other side. 

Sometimes it is this process of letting go of who we were and becoming someone we don’t know that is the hardest part of spiritual growth. As the great mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria wrote in the 1400s, by being shown the truth and the splendor of spirituality, the soul rudely awakens to the triviality of all the things the body convinced it to be important in this world. This realization of the shallowness of the physical world is more painful than any pain that can be experienced in it. Yet, it is what the righteous strive for: to allow their old, frightened selves to die, so that they may live fully in the truth of spirit. This is the message of spring. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.