My mother, of blessed memory, instilled in me a Yiddish proverb comparing two kinds of people who fail to do the right thing. The nisht ken’r (who “doesn’t know” how); and the nisht vil’r (who is “unwilling” to do it, or even to find out how). The nisht vil’r, she would say, is worse than the nisht ken’r, “Unwilling is worse than unable.”
I understood the nisht ken’r: someone who didn’t know how would obviously fail at the task. But the nisht vil’r was a mystery. For the life of me, I could not fathom why someone wouldn’t want to do it. I couldn’t pitch for the New York Yankees, I knew (I was just a child, remember), but if I could, for sure I would! Later, as a teenager, I applied the lesson to giving charity (tzedakah). My family wasn’t rich enough to help everyone in need. But why would anyone who had the money not want to give it?
As an adult now, I find it striking that we all sometimes pass up doing the right thing, just because we lack the will. We are often unwilling to even help ourselves: we get stuck in self-destructive habits; we fail to phone the doctor, make a dentist appointment, or pay our debts on time; not because we can’t but because we seemingly just won’t. We are not nisht ken’rs (we don’t lack the ability); we are nisht vil’rs (we somehow lack the will).
How is that possible?
One answer comes from commentaries on the plague that turned the Nile into blood. Exodus 7:21 reports, straightforwardly, “The Egyptians could not drink the Nile’s water.” Just three verses earlier, however, the same information is given but with a strange verbal construction, best “translated” by converting the English adjective “impossible” into a transitive verb [Ex. 7:18]. The plague, God promises, will “impossible the Egyptians from drinking the water.” They “were impossibled,” Rashi explains, not because “they couldn’t find a solution” (a refuah), but because they lacked the will to try. Consider the Egyptians back then: the most scientifically adept people in the world, designers of pyramids, experts in papyrus creation and glassblowing, leaders in medical breakthroughs. Why then, when it came to ending this plague, did they give up trying?
The cause of their failure comes in the very next verse [Ex. 7:19], which insists that the plague infected not just Egypt’s rivers, but also every “gathering place” of water, every mikveh (in Hebrew). But mikveh also means “hope,” as in “Mikveh Israel,” the title of several synagogues, including the “synagogue of the American revolution,” as it describes itself, the oldest synagogue in Philadelphia –– not the “water-gathering of Israel,” but the “hope of Israel.”
The plague did more than pollute Egypt’s water; it also polluted Egypt’s hope, and when hope is gone, we do indeed become nisht vil’rs, people who lack even the will to seek solutions for life’s problems.
The Hebrew noun that Rashi uses for “solution” is refuah (healing), a word that evokes illness and suffering. His point is that even the trauma of being struck down by long-term pain or chronic disability is at least partially mitigated by the hope that a cure may still be found. Suffering, after all, though a state of affairs, is also a state of mind. Hope cannot end suffering, but it can make suffering sufferable. God no longer requires sacrifices, the Midrash says; instead, God asks us for hope. For good reason the State of Israel’s national anthem is Hatikvah, “The Hope.”
The reason the Egyptians did not purge their water of the punishing blood was not their lack of know-how, it was their lack of hope that robbed them of the will to keep on trying.
As long as there is life, there is hope, says the Talmud. It is also true that as long as there is hope, there is life.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.
Candlelighting Times, Torah Readings:
Shabbat Candles: 4:45 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 6:2-9:35
Haftorah: Ezekiel 28:25-29:21
Havdalah: 5:46 p.m.