The Jewish Studio

When resilience is just stubborn: the art of quitting

Part of a yearlong series on resilience in Jewish spiritual life.

Ever feel like you’re pushing a boulder up a hill and soon will reach the top if you just keep going – but the top never comes? Mythical Greek king Sisyphus was condemned to this futility, and philosopher Albert Camus saw in it a metaphor for all human life. Camus wrote in 1942: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy [because] the struggle itself to the heights is enough to fill [the human] heart.”

Oh? Is the uphill climb all there is? When is it more resilient to catch a tailwind than defy gravity? When should we quit to get ahead?

All year, we’ve been blogging about resilience in Jewish spiritual life. We’ve met resilience teachers in Torah characters, personality traits, challenges and blunders. This week’s Torah portion (Balak) teaches that sometimes what we call resilience is just blind stubbornness.

Balak is a king aiming to curse the Israelites traversing his territory. His cleric is Bilam, whom Balak sent to curse them. Bilam pursued his master’s mission with zeal: to Bilam, perseverance probably felt like resilience.

But God wanted to bless Israel, not curse Israel, so God sent an angel to block Bilam’s way. Bilam, however, wouldn’t be deterred: he couldn’t or wouldn’t see what was in front of him. After hilarious plot twists that include Bilam’s donkey seeing the angel, crushing Bilam’s foot underneath and then talking to Bilam as if a talking donkey were ordinary, finally Bilam saw the angel and “saw the light.” From then on, Bilam said and did only as God instructed.

But Balak also wouldn’t be deterred. Even as Bilam blessed Israel, Balak kept trying to get Israel cursed. Balak hauled Bilam from one place to another, as if changing Bilam’s location would change his words. Like Bilam before him, Balak’s perseverance probably felt like resilience: he’d push until he prevailed. In the end, God prevailed: Israel received ever more blessings from Bilam’s own mouth.

Sometimes what we call perseverance and resilience are just our egoic willfulness. Yes, life asks determination and grit, but life also asks discernment. Sometimes we’re on the right train to the wrong station. As The New York Times put it recently, “winners are people who know when to quit“.

Resilience means seeing what’s in front of us and letting what we see change us when change is wise. Resilience means not letting ego keep us from needed redirection. Resilience means not letting the “sunk cost” of past effort keep us from cutting losses.

Had Bilam been paying the right kind of attention, maybe he would’ve seen signs that he was on the wrong path. Maybe he would’ve seen repeated obstacles as holy forces of redirection. Same for Balak: had he really listened to his otherwise loyal cleric, maybe Balak would’ve heard a deeper message.

In most life situations, we’re not Sisyphus: we have the power to choose and the duty to choose wisely. In many life situations, we might experience an impulse of holy re-direction. Real resilience is unafraid to ask if we’re still on the right path, and unafraid to be re-directed for the better – whatever the cost.

Just ask Balak, Bilam and his holy angel of re-direction – this week’s resilience teachers.

– Rabbi David Evan Markus

Originally published at The Jewish Studio.

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