(A long deep sigh!) When was the last time you sighed? Let’s do it together. Read? (Another long deep sigh!) Was it on Wednesday morning that you last sighed when you realized the holiday season which began with Chanukah a month ago is finally over and that we had not fallen over the so-called fiscal cliff? Or was it after the doctor called to say that the biopsy you took was negative? Sighing is an emotional release that allows us—if only for a moment—to let go and to just be. So let’s do it once more…(Still one more long deep sigh!)
The only time we encounter sighing in the Torah is in the beginning of today’s parsha as we begin the book of Exodus. The Torah tells us, “A new king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph,” meaning that he was not at all grateful for all the good that Joseph had done—how he saved kingdom from famine and ruin and how he made Pharaoh so rich by putting aside surplus grain during the good years and selling it during the years of famine. With unbelievable ingratitude, this new Pharaoh enslaved the Jews with backbreaking labor and had them build for him the store cities of Pitom and Ramses. When this crushing labor failed to deminish the Jews, Pharaoh then issued a decree that all the male children who were born to the Jews should be killed at birth.
And then the Torah (Ex. 2:23-25) tells us, Vayey-anchu b’ney Yisrael min ha-avodah, “And the Children of Israel sighed from the hard work.” The text continues: “Gd heard their moaning, and Gd remembered the covenant that He had made with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob, and Gd looked upon the Children of Israel and knew.”
Rabbi Jack Reimer comments that this is the turning point in the story. Up until now, for some reason, Gd was silent. But now, when Gd hears their sigh, He comes to their rescue. He begins by appearing to Moses at the burning bush and orders him to go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh those famous words: “Let My people go.” The sigh of the people is evidently what moved Gd to rescue them. But why, asks Rabbi Reimer? Was this the only time that the Israelites sighed? And why was this sigh so powerful that it moved Gd to save them?
One commentator asks: “Surely they must have cried and sighed when they were 1st enslaved, and surely they must have sighed when their children were taken away from them and killed. Why is this the only time that the words, ‘They sighed,’ are found in the story?” His explanation is that as long as the king was alive, they were not permitted to pause in their labors—even to sigh. But when the king died and all the Egyptians were preoccupied with their elaborate death rituals, the Israelites were able to steal a quick sigh.
Elie Wiesel tells the story of his visit to the Soviet Union as it was on the verge of collapsing. He met an old rabbi and asked him why the Jews of Russia—who had been silent for so long—had suddenly begun to speak up in protest. The rabbi answered by quoting the Kotsker Rebbe on the sigh of the Jews in Egypt: “All the time that Pharaoh was alive, the Jews suffered. Why then did they only sigh when he died? It was because before the Pharaoh died, even to sigh was forbidden. And so it is with us. Today we are permitted to sigh, but only because no one is listening.”
This is the 1st kind of sighing—the sighing that comes from exhaustion, weariness, and despair. If you’ve ever walked down a hospital corridor, you’ve heard it. Patients groan, not only because of their pain, but of the hopelessness that they feel that their pain may never end. It’s the same sigh that can be heard in prisons, in coal mines and wherever human beings do backbreaking labor that seem to have no purpose. It’s the sigh of despair.
But there’s another kind of sigh. Abraham Joshua Heschel made his debut on the American intellectual scene in January of 1945 with an essay called, “On Prayer,” for The Columbia University Review of Religion—a sophisticated journal for Christian scholars. Heschel had come to America in 1940. He was one of the last to escape Eastern Europe before the gates swung shut. He was saved as part of a special program in which scholars were given special visas. He was sent to Cincinnati and assigned to teach at the Reform Hebrew Union College there before he later wound up at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Can you imagine how lonely and out of place he must have been? He was a Chassidic intellectual teaching at a reform seminary! Also, his mother and his sister were in Poland and he had no way of knowing whether they were alive or dead. He must have also grieved for all the scholars and yeshivas and Jewish life that were being snuffed out back home.
And just as the war was ending (it ended on May 2, 1945) he was invited to write an essay on the meaning of prayer for the Columbia Review of Religion! He had just begun to learn English. Could he do justice to this complex and sacred topic in his new language? He must have felt that it was an impossible task and so he began his essay with a story about a sigh—a sigh of wishing that it could be done. Here’s the story:
About a hundred years ago, Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter of Ger pondered over the question of what a certain shoemaker of his acquaintance should do about his morning prayer. His customers were poor men, who owned only one pair of shoes. The shoemaker used to pick up their shoes at a late evening hour, work on them all night and part of the morning, in order to deliver them before their owners had to go to work. When should the shoemaker say his morning prayer? Should he pray quickly the first thing in the morning, and then go back to work? Or should he let the appointed hour of prayer go by, and, every once in a while, raising his hammer from the shoes, utter a sigh: “Woe is me, I have not prayed yet?” Perhaps that sigh, said the Rebbe of Ger, perhaps that sigh is worth more than the prayer itself.
Dr. Heschel went on page after page, teaching Jewish truths about prayer that had never been said so eloquently in English before. He wrote about the danger of routine that is an inevitable part of fixed prayer, and about the danger of waiting for the spirit to come before we pray, that is an inevitable danger of spontaneous prayer for it may not come often…and he wrote that there is only one response can ultimately maintain us—gratefulness, teaching us that gratefulness is what makes the soul great. He enlightened his readers about the spiritual heritage of Judaism—a Judaism that was being destroyed at the very moment in Europe.
I’m sure that he wished that he could have said more and said it better. I’m sure that he did so with awareness that he was a representative of the Jewish people that was on the very edge of genocide. For all this, I believe that he began his essay with a story about a sigh—the sigh of yearning. This is the sigh that comes to us when we’ve done something as best as we can, but know that we’ve not done it well enough.
The sigh of yearning when we strive to do something that is beyond our ability, when we reach out to grasp what is beyond our power to comprehend—even if it fills our hearts with regret when we cannot fully achieve what we yearn to achieve—nevertheless that sigh brings dignity and meaning to our lives. It’s the sigh the shoemaker felt when faced with so little time to pray.
I wish for you and me—in this secular New Year—that we never have to sigh the sigh of the enslaved—that we never feel so pressured in life that we don’t have a free moment to just be. A colleague of mine once remarked that there is a reason why our mobile phones are called “cell phones.” How many of us who hold them close 24/7 feel imprisoned by them—never able to turn them off, never able to be off, never able to even sigh. I wish all of us many moments of freedom from our new technologies and from the kind of work that leaves us with no time to live.
And I wish us to have the sigh of yearning—yearning to be more than we are, to reach beyond our grasp. I wish us the sigh that comes from dreaming the impossible dream, from striving to partner with Gd in sanctifying the world—the kind of sighing that comes from knowing that, after all we strive to be, we can be more. And to this let us all sigh together with the word, “Amen!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis