This Too Shall Pass? On Turning 60 and Other Matters: Shabbat Vaetchanan August 4, 2017

Earlier this week, a Facebook friend of mine posted a short Hebrew phrase that needed interpretation for his non-Hebraic followers. He wrote: Gam ze ya’avor: This too shall pass. He was specifically referring to the latest round of unpleasant political news that had come out that day. But the phrase is one that I have heard many times before.

I’ve heard it in both Jewish and Christian preaching – on the premise, I think, that it is biblical in origin. But it’s not. It comes from a medieval folktale that appears in Persian, in Turkish, and in Hebrew. Here’s the Jewish version:

“King Solomon once searched for a cure against depression. He assembled his wise men together. They meditated for a long time and gave him the following advice: Make yourself a ring and have thereon engraved the words ‘This too will pass.’ The King carried out the advice. He had the ring made and wore it constantly. Every time he felt sad and depressed, he looked at the ring, whereon his mood would change and he would feel cheerful.”
-Israel Folklore Archive # 126

The folk tale has popped up throughout the ages, as we look for ways to ease physical pain or emotional turmoil. Some people have taken the story literally and have had rings and amulets made with the phrase, or the Hebrew letters that begin the words, inscribed on them. Some people take it metaphorically, as the Jewish medieval philosopher and physician Maimonides did, when he advised against making yourself sick over something that already has transpired and cannot be changed – or over something that might or might not come to be in the future.

“Now intellectual reflection teaches that thinking about what has taken place and has happened is of no benefit at all, and that sadness and grief about matters that have passed and gone are due to faulty understanding.  . . .  On the basis of this reflection, acts of thinking leading to depression about something that is expected to come to pass in the future ought also to be abandoned. . . . After all, the expected matter and its opposite are both possible.”

Gam ze ya-avor.

Me, I’ve been mulling it over because of something that has not yet happened but will come to be in the very near future. This coming Tuesday, I’m turning 60 years old.

Yeah, I know. Some of you in this room are laughing because you’ve been there, done that. Others of you are thinking: Wow our rabbi is really old. And I’m hoping still others of you are wondering: Boy, how does she stay so young? I know it’s going to happen whether or not I like it. But I do wonder if I’m going to feel any different.

Will my legs start aching? Will my mind go blank more often than usual? I know my hair won’t suddenly turn grey, because I’ve already taken care of that. In the past I’ve loved my birthday celebrations in the past. Cake. Presents. This time? Hmm. Gam ze ya’avor. I kind of just want it to be over. Although – to be honest – I still would like presents and cake. Chocolate cake.

Between now and Tuesday, Don and I will be at a family celebration, seeing the youngest child of my youngest sibling off to college. The one who identifies himself as my favorite nephew and calls me “Aunt Rabs.” I’m hardly losing him forever. In fact, he’ll be at University of South Carolina, just a 25-minute drive from our house down in Camden. But a large part of my adulthood has been the joy of being a doting and slightly eccentric aunt to some pretty remarkable nieces and nephews. Now they aren’t kids any more. One is already married, and I’m officiating at the wedding of another next summer. Gam ze ya’avor. That part of my life has come to an end.

But another part has not. The next day I’ll be spending a few hours in the hospital, undergoing surgery to remove a growth that has been identified as benign – but given my history of cancer, anything they call a “lumpectomy” is scary all the same. And yeah, gam ze ya’avor.  Let’s hope we can get through that quickly. And please give me a good dose of that IV medicine that causes a bit of amnesia.

Gam ze ya’avor. It can be said with a shrug, or it can go with a hug. It can express impatience or it can show affection. We’d all like to think that these words – like all words – would be used kindly. But sometimes, it seems, both the carrot and the stick are necessary.

And even though the phrase isn’t itself Biblical, I think that this is what Moses had in mind, as he continues his final sermon to the people in this week’s Torah reading.

Moses spends a lot of time wielding that stick – stewing over things that, as Maimonides warned, already had taken place and could not be changed. He chastises the people because God has been angry with him on their account. He even blames them for the fact that he won’t cross the Jordan River with them – though we’ve already seen that his own anger and impatience had at last something to do with it.

And he inveighs against them for behaving badly in the future – for things that Maimonides warned might or might not happen, like turning to idolatry.

But Moses knows that browbeating the people for what’s happened in the past, or what may not happen in the future, isn’t the way to leave them. It isn’t the way he wants them to remember him. So he softens all of that with the more kind version of gam ze ya’avor – things will be hard, but you’ll get through it.

He starts this part of the speech by telling them that va’etchanan, he has pleaded with God on their behalf. He reminds them that they must be, at heart, a great nation – otherwise God would not have guided them this far, nor given them the great gift of Torah. He implores them to remember what they have seen with their own eyes, and heard with their own ears – the words and the commands of God, the divine presence on Mount Sinai, the daily miracles that allowed them to survive on a journey through hostile territory. And he reiterates for them the Ten Commandments, which prove God’s eternal love for them, and then shares the words of what we know now as the Shema and the V’ahavta – which express their love for God, from generation to generation.

And he ends here, this week, calling them an “am segulah” – a treasured people with a special claim, not just to the land, but on God’s heart. Any trial, any challenge, and pain can be endured if only they have faith:

יא וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת־הַמִּצְוָה וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לַעֲשׂוֹתָם:

“Only observe faithfully the Instructions – the laws and the rules – with which I charge you this day.”

Gam ze ya’avor. “This too shall pass.” Hey, I know I’ll get through the next few days in pretty good shape. And by next Friday, I’ll have made sure my hair will once again be the color I was born with (60 years ago!). But just thinking about all of this makes me more aware that none of us really knows what is going in other peoples’ minds, or their lives, at any given moment:  what they might be stuck on, rehashing from the past, or anticipating in the future. We should never assume we do know, or take those feelings lightly. We may not have Moses’s power of speech – but we can learn from the care he takes with his words, how we must choose ours.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.

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©2017 Audrey R. Korotkin

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