The Torah of Helplessness

We are given a clear statement of biblical theology in this week’s Torah portion, the last of the Book of Leviticus:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land....But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you—consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you: you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you. You shall flee though none pursues. (Leviticus 26:3-17)

It’s fairly straight forward: follow God and the commandments, and things will go well for you, don’t follow God and the commandments and things won’t go well for you. The only problem is, as we well know, things don’t work like that.

And if that is the case, then why does our Torah teach this? One answer is that our ancient spiritual ancestors who crafted this text really did believe this, and thought that those who were rewarded with divine blessing must deserve it and vice versa. In this way, they are unlike us.

On the other hand, one could posit that they are exactly like us, and this statement of reward and punishment is a way of addressing a basic human need–one that we as moderns share with the ancients–a need not to feel helpless. If, perhaps, one could explain how the world works, and every question would have an answer, then we would not feel so out of control.

I experienced this these past few weeks as my wife Yohanna was in the hospital for severe pain which turned out to be a bacterial infection causing fluid build up around her lungs.

Part of that helplessness comes from just the humility of knowing that regardless of one’s general health, it can change in an instant all because of a microscopic bacterium. Part of that helplessness came from the fact that as of now the doctors were unable to determine what the bacterium was. (Labs are still pending–samples were sent to the University of Washington–but the tests for the most common bacteria have come back negative.) Part of that helplessness came from a health care system with multiple parts that can be confusing to navigate at times.

And part of that came from the fact that because of Covid restrictions, I could not be in the hospital to support Yohanna physically and emotionally. Most of the time she was in the hospital I felt completely helpless.

I realize now all the moreso how necessary it is to have support during illness. I have experienced it as a patient, and now I experienced it as a caregiver. Having loved ones in close physical proximity is such an emotional aid to healing, and practically it is necessary at times to have another set of eyes and ears ready to receive information and ask questions. I began to wonder about this time of Covid, when visiting is restricted to prevent the spread of the virus, how much of that restriction contributed to poor outcomes–even of non-Covid-related illness–not only because hospitals were overextended but because patients were kept distant from family and friends.

Helplessness is such a terrible feeling, I understand why our ancient ancestors in Leviticus posited a universe that is rational and follows specific rules (albeit with the participation of an omnipotent deity.) Today we understand that the workings of the world are more mysterious and doesn’t play by the rules. In that case, we seek to alleviate our helplessness in other ways: connection and community, empathy and humility, love and compassion.

Indeed, this is the theme of the chapter in Leviticus that comes right before the one mentioned above. We alleviate our helplessness by remembering that in facing an irrational world, we are not alone.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

2 thoughts on “The Torah of Helplessness”

  1. So sorry to learn of Johanna’s illness. My fervent hope is that, by this time, Johanna is feeling better and is on the mend and you can breathe more easily knowing that the worst is over.


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