When We Let Go

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, December 17, 2021 / 13 Tevet 5782

Summary: There is a Jewish concept, called “ye’ush,” which can help us think about how to let go of the losses we suffer. This week’s Oasis discussion was prompted by a challenging Shabbat my family went through last week.

Reading Time: Four minutes

Our last Shabbat was spent in darkness, the way a Karaite Jew observes the Sabbath, or perhaps the way early humans lived before our ancestors learned how to tame fire. A tree fell in a windstorm; not only did it take down an electric power line, but it also ripped the electrical meter base off our house, removing siding with it. Of course, a Karaite had no expectations of spending Shabbat with light or warmth, and an ancient human lacked knowledge of any alternative. But we did, so that added to our frustration while we waited nearly three days before our power was restored.

We spent lots of energy trying to speed up that timeline: countless calls to PGE; locating an electrician to come out for an emergency; coordinating PGE’s ground crews with the electrician, and sourcing meter bases during a period when supply lines and global logistics have resulted in ongoing shortages.

What I am saying is that Laura and I worked the system as best we could: still, everything moved too slowly for our liking. We lost food and comfort and time better spent on other activities. We also lost many of our plans for that Shabbat and weekend.

We have all been there. Whether we have material or psychological expectations of how things are supposed to go, inevitably our plans go astray. Everyone can relate to the old Yiddish saying that “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”—we make plans, but God laughs. Things don’t turn out like the story in our heads say they should.

Much human suffering occurs because we find it so difficult to let go of those stories, the interior monologues that pollute our minds and encroach on our happiness. Yes, our power was out, PGE was having difficulty communicating within its own organization, and our electrician couldn’t find the necessary part as fast as we would have hoped. But we had done what was in our control. At that point, we would have been best served by letting go of our frustration. Yet we felt cheated. Cheated of what? The story of how our weekend was supposed to be!

There’s a powerful Jewish concept that comes to mind, ye’ush. Ye’ush literally means despair, which normally sounds like an unpleasant emotion. Yet halakhic despair points us to the internal dimensions of freedom. In a very technical manner, ye’ush refers to the moment when we despair of ever recovering our lost property. In the Talmudic discussion, Rabbi Abaye notes that once we have mentally accepted the fact that the item is lost forever—once we despair of ever getting it back—our claim of ownership is severed. The item becomes ownerless. The following example may be helpful.

When I was a boy, I once found an expensive wristwatch on a soccer field. My dad and I put up a couple of signs in an attempt to locate the original owner, but to no avail. At that point, I became the proud owner of a wonderful watch. I loved that watch. It was self-winding, had a 21-jewel movement, and glowed in the dark, which wasn’t so common back then. It also cost hundreds of dollars when new, which works out to a couple thousand in today’s currency. It was quite a fancy item for a ten-year-old, and I took great pride in that watch. Then one day, without my knowledge, the watchband pin popped, and just like that, the watch was gone. I’d say easy come, easy go—but there was nothing easy about the loss. For the longest time, I maintained a mental claim on that watch. I still believed it was mine because I had not despaired of its recovery. My mind refused to let it go, so my unwillingness to despair of ever getting it back caused me considerable anguish.

Looked at rationally, the chances of that watch ever making its way back to me decreased day by day. Had I allowed myself an experience of ye’ush early on, I would have relinquished ownership of the watch. In doing so, the loss would have faded more quickly along with the sting we feel when something valuable slips from our fingers.

This sort of despair is strangely liberating because it frees us from the mental illusions that cause suffering. In my ten-year-old head, that watch was still mine. To any reasonable outside observer, however, this was a case of “finders keepers, losers weepers.” The watch was already gone, regardless of how I felt about it.

My once-a-month Saturday at home disappeared at 11:30 pm Friday when the tree came down. That is, the Shabbat in my head disappeared in a strong gust of wind. Had Laura and I been just a bit quicker in letting it go through an act of mental despair, we could have experienced a different sort of Shabbat, one filled with the sort of elemental joy only available when camping out in your own home. Sometimes, you have to pour out the glass so you can fill it again.

On Saturday night, we made havdalah and booked a hotel room. With no clarity on when power would be restored, I reached my moment of ye’ush, that clarifying moment of freedom. After that, life was an adventure again.

Judaism places a strong emphasis on gratitude. That requires a choice to look on the bright side, to seek wisdom and contentment with what we have. Gratitude views challenges as opportunities. In a world of hurdles, it’s best to jump high and keep moving forward.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you make of this Jewish concept of ye’ush?
  2. Is there something you are finding difficult to let go of? A relationship, a job, or a possession? What is preventing you from doing so?
  3. Sometimes it’s important to hold fast, even if your chances are slim of keeping the item, person, or cause. Sometimes maintaining mental ownership is like playing the odds. What unlikely scenario are you attached to, and why is it so important to you?

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