This was the big day. Alan had practiced and competed for years and was now proudly representing his country in the 100-meter dash. He stretched in the sand before the thick, white starting line, eagerly awaiting the starting gun. As he waited, he couldn't help noticing the athlete from Norway. The guy was tall, thin, and looked as swift as he did muscular.
The man would probably run the race in half the time that he would! Alan started to question himself. What was he doing here? There was no way he would win the race! With all the other talented athletes, he would probably be the laughing stock of the event! Alan became discouraged and marched off the field, forfeiting his chances in the race.
In this week's Torah portion, we are told that, "A man from the house of Levi went and took [as a wife] a daughter of Levi." (Exodus 2:1) This verse refers to Moses' parents, Amram and Yocheved, who were both from the tribe of Levi. The Talmud (Tractate Sotah 12a) explains the history behind this event. Yocheved had been married to Amram for several years and already bore Moses' older siblings, Miriam and Aaron. Later, when Pharaoh decreed for baby boys to be drowned, Amram decided to divorce his wife. It was better to avoid the murders altogether than to bear children for Pharaoh to kill. Amram was the leader at the time and the entire nation followed his direction.
Later in the Torah, Miriam is referred to as "the prophetess, the sister of Aaron." (Exodus 15:20) We know that Miriam had two brothers. However, this verse only makes reference to her older brother, Aaron. The Talmud derives from here that Miriam had a prophecy when she was a young girl, even before Moses was born (see Talmud Tractate Sotah 12b). She prophesized that her mother would give birth to the future redeemer of the Jewish people. The commentator known as the Iyun Yaakov explains that it was largely due to this prophecy that Amram chose to rescind his previous decision and allow the nation to remarry their wives. The Torah records this momentous event, stating that Amram, a man from the house of Levi, took Yocheved, also a descendant of Levi, in a second marriage, setting an example for the rest of the nation to follow.
The Talmud (ibid. 12a) calculates that Yocheved remarried when she was 130 years old. Considering Yocheved's advanced age, why did the Torah refer to her as a "daughter of Levi" -- a title that connotes youth? The Talmud explains that a miracle took place and the aging Yocheved was physically rejuvenated with aspects of her youth. The Iyun Yaakov explains that this miracle was necessary for the nation to realize that Amram had completely reneged his original decision to separate from his wife.
At this point, it is clear that Amram believed his daughter's prophecy. His knowledge of the prophecy strongly influenced the decision to remarry his wife. It was further supported by his wife's miraculous rejuvenation.
In addition, the Talmud relates (ibid. 13a) that when Moses was born, the entire house filled with light. Upon seeing this, Amram said, "My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled." However, three months later, when Moses was placed in a basket in the Nile, Amram was not as convinced. Only Miriam stood by to see what would happen to Moses. Amram, comments the Maharsha, had given up, assuming that the prophecy was untrue.
In context, Amram's reaction does not seem based. Why should he have given up on his daughter's prophecy? Just a short time before, Amram firmly believed the prophecy. It prompted him to remarry Yocheved, it's truth was supported by the miracle of his wife's physical rejuvenation and again upon Moses' birth, when the house filled with light.
Also, we know that Amram was the greatest sage of the time. He certainly maintained a high level of trust in God. The sages teach (Talmud Tractate Berachot 10a) that even if the blade of a sword is placed against a person's throat, one should not despair from God's mercy. Even when a situation seems totally hopeless, we understand that God is fully capable of saving a person from the most impossible dangers. Moses' predicament did look bleak -- a three-month-old baby was floating helplessly in the raging Nile waters. But why did that warrant giving up?
God could still save Moses! Amram should have watched with Miriam from the riverbank and only given up when he actually witnessed Moses' death! Why did he despair before the situation was over?
The answer is that we have a strong natural tendency to despair in bleak situations. Although Amram intellectually believed that the prophecy was true and that Moses would somehow be saved, the emotion of the moment was so overwhelming that it overrode his intellectual understanding.
Considering Moses' dangerous predicament, it was natural for a father to lose hope as there was no foreseeable way in which Moses would survive. Amram knew the prophecy that this baby would one day save the Jews and he trusted God very strongly. But the natural inclination to despair in such a bleak situation was so pervasive that it overcame his intellectual convictions, causing him to give up hope.
At times, we are each faced with this inclination to despair. When presented with a difficult situation, we naturally shy away in despair, rather than tackling the challenge for a chance at success. This inclination frequently hinders our spiritual endeavors. For example, we'll perceive a particular mitzvah as too difficult or overwhelming.
Instead of attempting to see if our perception is skewed, we'll simply forfeit the opportunity without trying. It is easy to fall prey to this emotion. The key to our success is not to succumb.
The Midrash discusses a parable in which a loaf of bread is suspended high in the air. A person who wants the loaf can have two responses. They can either assume that it is hopelessly inaccessible and simply give up, or they can realize that if someone was able to put it there, there must be a way to retrieve it! The latter will get himself a stick and bring the loaf down. The Midrash concludes that a person can have same response to the vast content of the Torah. He can give up without trying and remain a spiritual ignoramus. Or he can devise an intelligent method by which to acquire the impossible. The latter will set up a program by which he learns a small segment each day. Those segments will amass until he eventually masters large portions of the Torah.
An example of this can be seen in the Daf Yomi system. At first glance, the prospect of learning through the entire Talmud strikes a person as an absolutely impossible feat. Yet, with a daily regimen of one page per day, many thousands of people have accomplished the impossible.
It's all a matter of perception. If we apply our abilities and condition ourselves to never give up without trying, we will accomplish much more than we ever imagined. When Alan was training for the big race, someone should have taught him this lesson. He was an accomplished athlete and had a fair shot at the 100-meter dash. His failure was prompted by the perception that his goal was unattainable. He despaired in the face of challenge rather than attempting to do his best. We learn from Amram that there is a natural emotional force to despair, even when one's intellect says otherwise. The key to our success is to recognize this tendency and to push ourselves against the opposition. Often, the difficulty only seems overwhelming, but if broken into bite-size pieces, we can slowly accomplish the impossible. May God help us to overcome our inner opposition and realize our full potential.
Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, writes from New York.
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