May the force be with you


Rabbi Josh Feigelson explores the lesson of letting go through the lens of two iconic figures: Darth Vader and Moses. He reflects on the character of Darth Vader, whose struggle with fear and loss led him to seek control and power. Drawing a parallel, he delves into the story of Moses in Parashat Huqat, examining his moment of anger and its consequences. Through these narratives, he discusses the importance of processing grief, managing emotions, and the power of letting go.

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One of the movies movie franchises that has always played an important role in my life is Star Wars.

Now don’t worry if you’re not a Star Wars fan: I’m not going to geek out and talk about stuff you don’t know. We’re keeping this on the level of common knowledge: Darth Vader and the Force. 

Star Wars (Photo: Flickr/ Mirko Toller)

Like a lot of people, I have been fascinated by the character of Darth Vader since I first encountered him as a kid.

Shiny helmet. Killer black suit, complete with cape. Awesome red light saber. And, of course, the breathing. The dude is just sick. 

When we first meet Darth Vader, he is a terrifying symbol of evil. And he stays that way throughout the movies.

But we also come to know more of his backstory, and we learn how he got this way, and by the end, I think, we develop some compassion for him.

At the root of what makes Vader Vader is his inability to accept loss. He always seeks to control the present and the future. And he gets, well, clingy as a result.

Where Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker, “Use the Force, Luke–let go, Luke,” the image I think of with Vader isn’t letting go with an open hand, but crushing with a closed fist, saying, “If you only knew the power of the dark side.

Vader always wants to hold on. He wants to dominate. He wants to control. And through the movies, we come to learn that what’s driving him is a very deep inability to manage with the pain of loss and suffering.

In contemporary parlance we might say that he doesn’t process his grief well, and he doesn’t have tools for managing his fear. And sadly, as his old master Yoda tells him in a moment of heavy foreshadowing, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.

Under the mask and the breathing and the badass costume, Darth Vader is a very scared person who never learned to let go of his fear — and he became consumed by it.

Now, we don’t have a Darth Vader figure in the Torah, thank God. But we do encounter moments when people don’t manage their fear well, when they seek to hold on rather than let go.

One of the most famous of those moments occurs in Parashat Huqat. This is a Torah portion of major transition.

We basically fast-forward through the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, and we come out the other end to find that the older generation is dying off.

Most prominently, both of Moses’s siblings pass away in this Torah portion. And Moses seems to take the death of his sister Miriam particularly hard.

In the verse after the Torah reports that she died, we learn that the people had no water to drink. The ancient Rabbis understood this to mean that, as long as Miriam was alive, there was a well of water that miraculously traveled with them through the desert.

But now that she was no longer living, the well dried up. The people complain (which, they tend to do a lot), and Moses asks God what to do. God tells Moses to assemble the people in front of a big rock and to speak to it–and then water will come gushing out.

Moses gets the people together but, crucially, doesn’t speak to the rock. Instead, he says some angry words to the people and then he hits the rock.

Water comes rushing out, but God is upset because Moses hit the rock instead of talking to it. And for that reason, God says, Moses, like the rest of his generation, won’t enter the Promised Land. Ouch.

Commentators through the years have wondered at this. The punishment seems excessive for the crime. Yet I’d like to suggest that this might be Moses’s Darth Vader moment.

Now, important caveat, Moses is no Darth Vader, of course. I just think of that gesture–angry, forceful, wielding this staff in his hand.

For just a moment, he lost it. Moses let his anger get the better of him. And while anger is a natural emotion, that’s not ultimately the example God wants for the people. 

Now the question is, why does Moses lose it here? And for that, I suggest looking at what happened just before: His sister died. His sister who had looked out for him as a baby in the Nile river. His sister who seems to have been a really important person in his life.

Moses had experienced a significant loss. And maybe he was having a hard time managing that. In such moments, it’s understandable that our emotions can get the better of us.

I have experienced that kind of loss, and my guess is you have too. Sooner or later we all do.

And one of the things I’ve come to appreciate is that there’s a lot of letting go that comes in the process of grief —and even in the months or years leading up to it.

I imagine that Moses really doesn’t want to lose his sister, who he loves. He wants to hold on. But he has to let go. And for a split second, at just the wrong time, he’s still holding on when he needs to be letting go. 

We’ve gotten to a pretty heavy place. If you’re experiencing grief because of a recent loss, first I want to just send you compassion. I can imagine the kind of pain you may be in.

And I want to encourage you to find communities and practices that can help you — through a synagogue, a grief support group, or therapy. 

But to step up a level or two from that really heavy place, I think it’s important to say that we experience this challenge of holding on versus letting go even in more mundane moments.

Do we hold on when someone says something hurtful? When they disappointed us? When they didn’t live up to our expectations? Do we hold on when we let ourselves down? Or when we don’t get what we wanted? So much of life is about learning how to let go. 

The Buddhists talk about the parable of the two arrows. Anytime we suffer, we’re struck by an arrow —the pain of the suffering itself. But we can also be struck by a second arrow — the pain we generate in our reaction to the first one. We can’t control the first arrow, but we can control the second.

So here’s a meditation practice that can help. 

Begin by entering a meditation posture. Maybe sit a little more upright. Lift your forehead up a little bit and let the air flow. Gently close your eyes.

As you breathe, just try to practice this letting go. You can feel it on the exhale: ahh, letting go. Enjoy that letting go. You can feel it on the inhale too — some relief as your lungs begin to refill with oxygen. 

Try to notice where you start to cling a little bit. Maybe thoughts of desire arise — things you want, things you have to get done. Or maybe fears — of things that might happen, or things that might not happen. 

See if you can let go of those desires, those fears. Notice them, acknowledge them, but see if you can help yourself not to fire the second arrow. 

Anytime you sense those sensations coming up, just see if you can relax and let go a little bit. 

And just keep practicing this — let go, let go, let go. 

If you’ve been alive for more than ten minutes, you know that life is going to hand us plenty of pain, suffering, and disappointment. That we can’t control. But we can control how we respond. So see if this letting go practice helps you to respond from a better place. 

Blessings for the journey, and may the Force be with you.

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