Shmata D’var, Parashat Shmot:
Can you picture your rock bottom? The point at which you lost hope of ever climbing out of this hole? What did you tell yourself in that moment? Maybe you told yourself that you’re a lost cause? That you’ll never be able to be anything more than what you are? That this is a pattern you’ll never be able to break free from? The reality is, though, that those are the lies we tell ourselves – it’s a lie that we don’t matter, and it’s a lie that there’s no return from the depths we’ve sunk into.
The Talmud teaches this lesson in an interesting way – through the language of betrothal, of getting engaged to be married – which at its core is about making a commitment. Kiddushin 49b tells us: “If one says to a woman: ‘Be betrothed to me on the condition that I am a righteous man,’ then even if he was a completely wicked man she is betrothed, as perhaps in the meantime he had thoughts of repentance in his mind and is now righteous.” We’ve all made similar commitments about our sobriety, our recovery, about our desire to be better than we are. We make promises – to our family members, our partners, our friends, our community, our Higher Power – saying that if they will just stick with us, we can get there, we can become the version of ourselves that we’ve committed to being. But as this gemara already knows, we will inevitably fall short – none of us is capable of being completely righteous, even if it is our intention to do so. We may even fail miserably, straying so far from our intended path that no one would even know we had made such a commitment in the first place. Even in this case however, the Talmud doesn’t let us off the hook! No matter how wicked our behavior has become, the commitment we made is still valid and binding, because it assumes that even if we made no efforts to fulfill that promise, that we may have had a passing thought about doing so – and that’s enough to keep us in the game.
The Talmud then goes even further than this, saying that not even a promise to be wicked can be taken seriously: “Similarly, if one says to a woman: ‘Be betrothed to me on the condition that I am a wicked man,’ then even if he was a completely righteous man she is betrothed, as perhaps he had thoughts of idol worship in his mind, a serious sin that would earn him the label of wicked.” According to this view of the gemara, we could never be fully righteous or wicked even if we tried! Some of us are afraid to make these commitments and promises in the first place, convincing ourselves that the lies are true, and that if we are never really able to achieve our best selves, then we’ll not only have failed, but we’ll have left a trail of broken promises in our wake. So we tell ourselves another lie: it’s better not to try, not to make the commitment at all.
The real truth is that the only way that there’s absolutely no hope of achieving the goal, is not setting it in the first place. And as for failing, as this gemara tells us, falling short of the goal is part of the process, and there is actually no point at which we’re permitted to throw our hands up and say “It’s been too long,” or “I’ve run out of chances.” Even after 400 years of slavery in Egypt our ancestors refused to give up; they refused to accept that the commitments made between them and God had been nullified. As we begin the book of Exodus this week, we hear the Israelites cry out to God from their collective rock bottom, and in response God takes notice of them, setting a plan in motion to free them from slavery and bring them to “a land flowing with milk and honey,” (Exodus 3:8).
My blessing for us this week is that we can identify the righteous thoughts among our wicked actions, and that we find the strength to see the truth: that there’s always a way out of this wickedness, this slavery, and that a spark of righteousness remains alive within us, pointing us to our promised land.
Rabbinic Intern, Spiritual Counseling