In the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, the Piazetzno Rebbe spoke consolingly to his community. In loving response to understandable despair, he reminded them that when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt, the situation seemed so hopeless that:
“It is clear, amidst all this suffering, that if only everyone knew that they would be rescued tomorrow, then a great majority — even those who have already despaired — would be able to find courage. The problem is that they cannot see any end to the darkness.”
In alluding to their ancestors’ immense suffering in Egypt in the present tense, the Warsaw Ghetto rabbi acknowledged the depth of his community’s pain. In reminding them that the period of slavery in Egypt eventually ended, he held out hope to people who understandably had lost any reason to hope.
A strand in Jewish tradition teaches that leaving Egypt was a gift given to a people who were no longer able to imagine a life beyond their pain. The people of Israel felt such deep despair that they were unable to help themselves or even ask for help. Their redemption came as a gift of pure grace.
At JFS, we understand that the initial assistance in a time of overwhelming physical or emotional need can seem to come out of nowhere, through no effort of our own. That type of assistance, like the Exodus, is a moment of grace — an opening that enables us to take the next steps, to ask for help and to do the hard work required to move out of a difficult situation. When that moment occurs, JFS provides support for those next steps. We understand that leaving Egypt, a metaphor for the first steps in leaving any difficult situation, is only the start of the story.
After the initial “redemption,” Jews are told to count 49 days (the omer) between Passover (leaving Egypt) and Shavuot (receiving the Torah.) Counting each day is meant to create and develop the internal awareness and intentions required to do the work of moving from a state of “slavery” to “freedom.” On the fiftieth day, which is Shavuot, we acknowledge and accept that freedom (Passover) without the order of just laws and communal responsibility (Shavuot) is simply a new form of chaos and enslavement.
The metaphorical image of the omer, of the possibility of climbing out of an abyss one step at a time, is one that gives us hope. Sometimes we have enough material or emotional resources to take those steps on our own, with the help of family or friends. And sometimes, we need more than the support family or friends can provide. When extra support is required or when a person’s natural support system is limited, JFS is available. JFS staff and volunteers provide the structure and support for people to do the difficult and personal work of achieving well-being, health and stability.
The message of Shavuot and the work of JFS are reminders that being human means we always experience new opportunities to be grateful for unearned gifts, including the gift of life itself. Our challenge, as individuals and as a community, is to transform that gratitude, one day at a time, into energy and actions that lift us and others with us into a world of greater justice, compassion and hope.
By Beth Huppin
Beth is the Director of JFS Project Kavod/Dignity. She has enjoyed teaching Judaics to children and adults of all ages in both formal and informal settings for over 30 years. She is the recipient of a 2010 National Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education.
This content was made possible, in part, by funds granted by The Covenant Foundation. The statements made and the views expressed, however, are solely the responsibility of the author.