Defeating Despair

While serving the synagogue it was my privilege to establish in Southern California, my wife and I frequently sailed our forty-four foot cutter to Catalina Island.  On that 26 mile jaunt, we often saw dolphins, whales, and other beguiling sea life.

When fog set in, I’d think of Florence Chadwick, who in 1952 set out to swim from Catalina to the mainland.  When fog obscured her goal, she lost her drive and abandoned her attempt. Despair defeated Florence.

After the fog lifted she was horrified to see that she had quit only half a mile from the beach.  Two months later, with the coastline visible, she tried again and succeeded.

Let’s understand this principle from Moses, who in one Scriptural account responds to Israel’s provocation with steadfast leadership while elsewhere in the Bible he responds to similar provocation with exasperation, hopelessness, and even despair.

In Exodus 16:2-3, the children of Israel complain against Moses and Aaron, who had just liberated them from hundreds of years of horrific slavery.  The Israelites pretend ridiculously to recall desirable circumstances in Egypt where they claim to have lacked nothing.  Frustratingly, they express remorse at having been taken from that Egyptian paradise.

Without hesitation Moses sternly chastises them for grousing against God and assures them that they will soon see meat and bread. (Exodus 16:12) Through the remainder of chapter 16 Moses leads calmly and confidently.

A year later the Israelites again demanded meat. (Numbers 11:4) Hearing them grouching and kvetching, Moses was deeply distressed. (Numbers 11:10) Instead of admonishing them as he did in Exodus, he cries out to God:

Why have you afflicted your servant? Why haven’t I found favor in your eyes that you lay the burden of this entire people upon me?
(Numbers 11:11)

Moses renounces responsibility for the people and in hopeless anguish contemplates the impossibility of finding meat for them. (Numbers 11:12-13).  Sliding swiftly into utter despair, he confesses himself incapable of carrying the people any further and begs God to end his life. (Numbers 11:14-15).

Moses seems so utterly demoralized that even when God promises to bring meat for the people, Moses reacts incredulously asking God if enough animals exist for them.  (Numbers 11:22)

One clear distinction between the two instances is that in Exodus, the Hebrews had just left Egypt.  While certainly an oppressive regime, at least Egypt was a known evil.  Their future in the desert however, was terrifyingly unknown.  Moses ‘cut-them-some-slack’ because he felt their fear partially excused their impudence.

The story in the 11th chapter of Numbers is quite different.  A year has elapsed during which God has unfailingly provided for their every need and Israel’s ingratitude is incomprehensible to Moses.  Instead of confronting them as a steadfast leader, he avoids them and laments his circumstances to God.  The goal of a strong, faithful nation that would trust in God was obscured by fog.  Despair defeats Moses.

Had I now been teaching a Sunday school class, this is where I’d leave it.  But I think far too highly of my Thought Tool readers and thus must offer you another golden nugget of ancient Jewish wisdom.

God’s solution was for Moses to select seventy elders to stand with him.  They didn’t have to do anything other than just stand with him.  Their firm vision and complete confidence was contagious.  Moses caught some of that confidence and defeated his despair.

By associating with those who recognize that God’s plan is good, we also come to see that our despair is born of our mistaken assumption that there is no goal. With the help of wise friends, we realize that the goal is still there, even if hidden by fog.

Are life’s burdens sapping your freedom and vitality? Are money worries, illness, loneliness, addiction and other circumstances, both in and out of your control, making getting through each day an overwhelming challenge? This week, our audio program Let Me Go: How to Overcome Life’s Challenges and Escape Your Own Egypt is on sale. Whether for you or for someone needing a fresh perspective, this resource is indispensable. Rabbi Lapin delves into three lessons from the Exodus story that will inspire and guide you to escape your troubles and build a better life. 

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On Sale:

Let Me Go: How to Overcome Life’s Challenges and Escape Your Own Egypt

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2 thoughts on “Defeating Despair”

  1. I don’t despair, reading The Artscroll, The Stone Edition as well as the Apostolic teachings with praying, helps immeasurably. I do pray for a friend or even one day a trusted companionship. I love Susan and yours Ancient Jewish Wisdom also looking forward to you Bible study. Thank you, Rabbi for all you and Susan do.

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