“Every age has its signature afflictions,” wrote the Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han in his book The Burnout Society. Burnout is that feeling of exhaustion and even depression that follows an ordeal. The “signature affliction” of our time has been the Corona Virus. As we emerge, what words or wisdom do we need to propel us forward? Torah may have some answers.
At the start of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Torah, we behold an exhausted and cantankerous Moses speaking to the worn-out and hesitant Hebrews. Forty years of torturous Sinai journeying is at an end as is Moses’ time as leader. Moses himself is suffering from burnout. Sinai living was not lifestyle magazine-worthy. The sequestration, the lack of water, and the hostility among the tribes made life arduous for all.
Moses is at the end of a difficult leadership tenure. He will not be continuing into that promising future. The people gather around him to pay attention. They quit their complaining to listen. They review the challenges overcome and anticipate the promised land.
As a leader, Moses delivers a speech to compel the people forward. What words did Moses offer to encourage the people? Go up! Take possession of your future. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be disheartened.
During 17 months of coronavirus, much of it spent sequestered, we had our own smaller scale Sinaitic experience. We have been isolated from the world, terrified of an unseen pathogen. Many are burned out by the anxiety.
For a healthy transition, we can again hear Moses. Be strengthened by appreciating how we endured the challenges of the past two years. Look forward to the possibilities before us. Pay attention to moral and ethical leadership.
The Hebrews were accustomed to living a nomadic life in an arid and rocky peninsula. The transition to a promised land required a mental realignment. Some were resistant and stiff-necked while others were eager to press forward.
Today, many long for the halcyon days when we fearlessly boarded public transportation, packed Broadway theaters, and jammed into elevators. But the promised times ahead will offer a new reality. Perhaps face masks will be de rigueur. We might redesign public spaces. Priority will be given to virus research. Those are elements of the promised land we hope to enter. Constructing a safer future is one counterbalance to the burnout we feel.
We might not have a Moses who can gather and motivate the people. But the words and wisdom to combat our own burnout are already with us. They were given over three thousand years ago and remain as potent today; take possession of your future and set aside your fear.
Rabbi Evan Krame