It was Wednesday midmorning, and I was sitting at Peet’s Coffee in the Ferry Building. On the table before me was my travel mug filled with black coffee, a tractate of Talmud for my noontime downtown Talmud circle, a Torah commentary in preparation for this very column, last night’s notes from a Zohar class, my MacBook Air opened to my Breslov folder, and an iPhone — the apparatus of the modern rabbi.
A woman walked up to me with her friend and identified herself as the grandmother of a bat mitzvah student of mine. The bat mitzvah is now a junior in college, but she, and her friend, remembered me from that time and place.
They saw everything on the little table and said, “Can you give us any wisdom for today from these books?”
“Yes,” I said, “Never give up.”
“Oh, that’s just what we needed to hear.”
“That’s what I need to hear,” I said.
And if I could send a message to Moses in this week’s portion, Va’era, it would be, “Never give up.”
I myself had suffered some setbacks this month, as had Moses. At the end of last week’s reading, Parashat Shemot, he turns to God and complains:
“Why, Adonai, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”
Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And now, in Va’era, even though God has reassured him that he will succeed, Moses replies, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips?”
Most commentaries focus on “faltering lips,” but I was taken by the honest despair of a person challenged by setbacks facing an even greater task.
This is America, and the month of January. Had Moses and I spent Jan. 16 together we would have heard from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
I could also tweet Moses this teaching from the Talmud: “Rabbi Nahman said: Audacity, even against Heaven, is useful.”
Or from Proverbs: “A tzadik [righteous person] falls seven times, and rises up again.”
Or we could sing with Debbie Friedman (her yahrzeit was Jan. 9): “Those who sow, who sow in tears, will reap in joy!”
Or from Chaya Rivka Zwolinski (aka Breslovwoman), modifying a teaching of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov: “Regardless of where a person has fallen, she should never despair and believe that she cannot cry out to God. In His greatness, God has the power to turn everything to good.”
Later, in the book of Numbers, Moses complains to God that the burdens of leading the Jewish people are overwhelming him. Then we learn that Moses had married a Cushite woman, and Rashi tells us that the Cushite woman is Zipporah, who is now imagined as African.
I can see Zipporah as the African American poet Maya Angelou (1928–2014), speaking to Moses, telling him, “Never give up”:
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
(From “Still I Rise,” by Maya Angelou)
For the past several years I have had the privilege to stand by the indomitable Mira Shelub as she sang “Zog Nit Keynmol,” the hymn of the Jewish Partisans (she was one) during the annual San Francisco Yom Hashoah commemoration:
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!
Come up Moses, we are here and we will rise.