It wasn’t long ago that the Atlanta Falcons were spoken about as follows:
1. Q: What's the difference between the Atlanta Falcons and a dollar bill? A: You can get 4 quarters out of a dollar bill.
2. Q: What is the difference between a Falcons fan and a baby? A: The baby will stop whining after a while.
3. Q: How do you keep an Atlanta Falcons out of your yard?
A: Put up goal posts.
4. Q: How many Atlanta Falcons does it take to win a Super Bowl? A: Nobody knows and we may never find out!
No one speaks like that anymore after last Sunday’s NFC Championship game. The Falcons were so dominant—far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They made a whole city—the whole country—believe that the Falcons can do it…that this is the year they can go all the way and win the Super Bowl.
What was most interesting to me in the days that followed was how the mood of the whole city seemed to change…how everyone’s spirit was lifted—even those who normally walked around looking depressed. Depression is a serious thing and I don’t mean to belittle it. It was only 3 seasons ago that the Falcons won only 4 games, 2 years ago 6 and last year 8—far from a championship team. I know it’s just sports, but the Falcons and all their fans were down and truly depressed. How does one rise from being depressed?
This week’s Torah reading begins with Gd recounting His promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bring their descendants to Canaan. Gd speaks about the distress of the Jewish people who are in bondage and tells Moses to the lead the Jewish people from slavery to freedom and bring them home to the Promised Land. Moses relays Gd’s promise to the Jewish people, but—surprisingly enough—they’re reluctant and don’t listen to Moses. Why? The Torah (Ex. 6:9) tells us: Mikotzeyr ruach umayavodah kasha (Because of shortness of breath and hard work).
Rav Aaron Soloveichik z”l—Torah giant of Chicago and brother of the former dean of YU Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik—relates the story of their great grandfather Reb Chaim Soloveichik (with thanks to Rabbi David Senter). After making an appeal for the poor, Reb Chaim told his wife, I think I am 50% successful. I’m relatively certain that the poor are now willing to receive, but I’m not certain that the rich are willing to give!
Rav Aaron explained: Certainly the poor are ready to receive because they need help to survive. The rich need to be cajoled and romanced for their donations. Moses’ challenge is quite different. Here the slaves need to be sold on the concept of freedom. The reason cited in the verse seems to be illogical—that they don’t want to listen because of shortness of breath and hard work. These seem to be 2 compelling reasons to desire an end to slavery. If you were forced into hard labor to a point where you were physically affected, your breath was short, wouldn’t you want it to end and be free?
Rav Aharon then pointed out that the word ruach, “breath,” also means “spirit.” The worst thing that could happen to a human being—more that shortness of breath—is shortness of spirit. When our spirit is broken, we lose the ability to perceive a future that’s bright and hopeful. When our spirit is broken, we believe we don’t deserve anything better than what we have. The spirit of the people had been broken to the point that they believed they were not worthy of redemption.
Depression is a self-perpetuating condition. When we lose the ability to perceive a possible future, we deprive ourselves of that future. The condition of the Jewish people in Egypt, kotzeyr ruach, shortness of spirit was depression. When we perceive that something is beyond the realm of possibility, we make it so.
Conversely when we dare to dream, we expand our possibilities as we reach higher and higher. My mother Harriette, may she rest in peace, was and continues to be a significant influence in my life. She believed that there were no barriers in life that could not be overcome. She made me believe that there is nothing we cannot accomplish if we set our minds to it.
My friends, when life challenges us, we must not allow ourselves to spiral into a depression, a kotzeyr ruach, a shortness of spirit. We must understand that each of us is a masterpiece of Gd’s creation with a holy soul and an abundance of spirit. So when depression threatens, begin to do Gdly things to animate your holy soul and manifest your true spirit. Do acts of chessed (altruistic kindness) for others, not expecting anything in return. Offer daily prayers to Gd, pouring out your heart to Him. And fill yourself with the light of Torah everyday by finding some time every day—no matter how little—to study a bit of Torah. By harnessing that light and spirit we can rise above any challenge. The Children of Israel did it in Egypt, the Falcons have done in a few short years and we can as well. As my mother taught: “There is nothing you cannot accomplish if you just set your mind to it.” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis