Spirituality When Life Says No

Modern spirituality seems to echo advice of an old standard: "accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative." Who doesn't groove on light, love and can-do spirit? Each "yes" of affirmation and empowerment tends to feel good: a spirituality of "yes" energizes, validates and comforts. By comparison, negatives like restriction, redirection and disappointment can seem like lesser spirituality or even non-spirituality.

But every life encounters "no." Every life needs "no." Limits and redirection can re-inspire us and keep us healthy and safe. Disappointment can deepen awareness and build resilience. Life without "no" isn't real life. A spirituality that hews mainly to "yes" and recoils from "no" will miss key parts of life. It'll be calcified and brittle. It won't be fully real.

How do we incubate real spirituality when life's answer is "no"? 

Moses faced this question. In this week's Torah portion (Va'etchanan), Moses reached the Land of Promise after 40 years. His life goal before his eyes but already told he wouldn't enter, Moses pleaded once more. God's answer was blunt: no. "Enough! Don't speak to Me of this again!" (Deut. 3:26). God then had Moses climb a hill to see a Land he'd never touch.

How could Moses go on? How can we? What is real spirituality when life's answer is "no"?

These questions come at a time seemingly full of negatives. U.S. democracy is troubled, even dangerously so. Many feel too overwhelmed to look much less act. The world is less free, less safe, less fair and less just. And with Tisha b'Av now history, world Jewry turns to face Rosh Hashanah – and odds are that you'd rather not think about it. 

Me neither. The constant drip (sometimes torrent) of shockingly bad news wears me down. I'd rather luxuriate in spring's vibrant beauty than summer's slow wane. I don't want to notice the occasional yellowing leaf. I don't want to see "back to school" commercials on TV. 

Too bad. To my wish that democracy were healthier, to my craving for endless summer, to my inclination to turn away, life's answer is "no." And these negatives are trivial compared to illness and loss that we all must face, some more than others.

Rabbi David Ingber observed that God's "no" to Moses hid deep meaning. Most traditional commentators describe Moses' re-telling of God's "no" as angry: vayit'aber YHVH bi – "God was angry with me" for asking to enter the Land. One, Bachya ben Asher ibn Halawa (1255-1340), translated vayit'aber bi to suggest that a new time was being incubated.

Turns out vayit'aber bi can be read as "made me pregnant" – yes, pregnant. Ingber put the pieces together: with this divine "no," God impregnated Moses – not literally, but with a new spiritual vision that helped lift Moses to new heights. This holy "no" incubated in Moses new capacity, new vision and a healthy way to integrate this most disappointing "no" into his life.

As for Moses, so potentially for us if we allow it. We can't always know why life's "no" moments come, some so unfair and painful. But if we can summon the strength to hold just the possibility that each "no" somehow can incubate a capacity, vision or healthy way to move forward, then the "no" might well contain the seed of some future "yes." 

That kind of vision, pregnant with possibility even amidst life's negative, is what Moses saw in the Land. It's what God impregnated Moses to incubate, and what Torah now calls us to incubate in our lives. It's the very seed of resilience itself.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus