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Gam Zeh Ya’avor - This, Too, Shall Pass

3/27/2020

 

Earlier this week, Neil and I set out for a walk - something I know many of you are doing right now to get some sunshine, fresh air, and exercise. As most of you know, we live in Great Barrington, and we have a quick loop we can do from our house, through the center of town, and back again. On that walk, we had no trouble keeping a six foot distance from the folks around us, because we barely saw anyone at all. On what would have been a normally bustling weekday on Main Street, it looked like Thanksgiving Day - stores closed, streets empty, sidewalks dotted with an occasional pair out for some air.

 

Near the end of our walk, we did pass one woman, who did that polite, graceful ballet move that I’m sure so many of you have seen, allowing us each to keep moving on our path, while keeping plenty of physical space between us. “Thank you,” we said, “And have a good day.” Looking back at us, she replied, “Of course. This, too, shall pass.”

 

This, too, shall pass. The Hebrew rendering of these words immediately jumped to my mind: Gam zeh ya’avor. This phrase has its roots in stories from many cultures and traditions. Often, the Jewish version of this tale includes King Solomon, a character from our tradition who represents wisdom. This version that I will share with you comes from Tal Shachar, a positive psychology author - and he’s drawing upon a version told by the theologian, Martin Buber:

 

There is a story, told in various traditions, about a king who could not banish his sorrow. No matter what he tried — the remedies prepared by his doctors, the advice offered by his wise counselors — he continued to be unhappy, becoming more despondent every day that passed.

 

In desperation, messengers were sent out across the land, promising a reward to anyone who could help the king. The greatest experts came to the palace and tried their best, but to no avail.

 

A few days later, an old man dressed in work clothes arrived at the palace gate. “I am a farmer,” he said, “and a student of nature. I have come to help the king.”

 

“The king doesn’t need help from the likes of you!” the king’s chief counselor said dismissively.

 

“I shall wait, then, until he is prepared to see me.”

 

With each passing day, the king’s condition worsened. He felt sad and helpless, and he saw no end to his suffering. Finally, when virtually all hope was lost, the counselor let the old man in. Without uttering a word, the man approached the king, handed him a simple wooden ring, and left. The king looked at the ring, read the inscription that was etched on it, and slipped it on his finger. For the first time in months, he smiled.

 

“What does it say, Your Majesty?” asked the king’s counselor.

 

“Just four words,” said the king. “This, too, shall pass.”

 

Honestly, I haven’t always liked this story. When I lived in Israel, it was the trendy thing for people to visit one particular shop in the Old City of Jerusalem to purchase rings inscribed with this phrase. At times, this aphorism can seem more trite than profound.

 

Yet, after our chance encounter on Main Street, I reflected on these words this week, and it struck me how valuable they are for our times. I was also amazed at how wide-reaching these simple words have become, how many cultures and faiths retell the story, how it captures in just a few words a paradox of the human condition. Bad or good, sad or happy, difficult or blissful, curse or blessing - gam zeh ya’avor - this too shall pass.

 

An inspiring use of this phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln. In 1859, one year before he was elected president, in Milwaukee, he gave this speech at the Wisconsin fair, addressing a group of farmers - yes, just like the farmer, the student of nature from our original story, who shares those wise words with the king. Here’s how he concluded his remarks that day:

 

Some of you will be successful, and such will need but little philosophy to take them home in cheerful spirits; others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood. To such, let it be said, "Lay it not too much to heart." Let them adopt the maxim, "Better luck next time;" and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.

 

And by the successful, and the unsuccessful, let it be remembered, that while occasions like the present, bring their sober and durable benefits, the exultations and mortifictions of them, are but temporary; that the victor shall soon be the vanquished, if he relax in his exertion; and that the vanquished this year, may be victor the next, in spite of all competition.

 

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: "And this, too, shall pass..." How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! -- how consoling in the depths of affliction! "And this, too, shall pass..." And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

 

I have a new appreciation for this story and this phrase. Gam zeh ya’avor - this too shall pass. Our current reality is difficult and it is temporary. And there are also silver linings and hidden blessings - spending more time in nature, with family members, on personal hobbies, on reading or fitness. These blessings are also temporary. This Shabbat, as we dwell in our temporary, 25-hour palace of time, may we recognize the fleeting passage of the minutes, hours, or days we spend apart from each other as just that - fleeting. Let us hope, as Lincoln encouraged that group of farmers all those years ago, that these challenging times will only encourage us to create a course that is onward and upward, and to know that we are the people who will make that world for ourselves. I hope that this simple phrase will give you comfort and hope in the days and weeks to come. Gam zeh ya’avor - this too shall pass.

 

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780