Earlier this week I started a conversation with someone and asked them how they were doing. Their response was just a groan – to which I remarked that Chazal teaches that we can learn much even just from a groan.
In today’s daf (Ketubot 62a) we encounter two such teachings – where Rav states that אנחה שוברת חצי גופו של אדם, ‘a groan breaks half a person’s body’, whereas Rav Yochanan explains אף כל גופו של אדם, ‘it even breaks the entire body of a person’.
In seeking to make sense of this debate, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson references the Alshich’s commentary to Yirmiyah Ch. 9 who distinguishes between two types of groans: a groan of the body, and a groan of the soul. A groan of the body is when someone feels exhausted but they still have some hope. As Rabbi Nathanson explains, this is reflected in the words of Sefer Yona (1:6) and echoed in the words of our selichot of מַה לְּךָ נִרְדָּם קוּם קְרָא אֶל אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ which translates as ‘why are you sleeping? Get up and call out to your God!’ but which, in this case, means that while you may be exhausted there is still hope and so you should do what you can, including praying to God, that your situation be improved. This feeling of exhaustion, coupled with hope and the ability of doing something, is called a groan of the body, and it is about such a situation that Rav says that אנחה שוברת חצי גופו של אדם, ‘a groan breaks half a person’s body’. Yes, in that moment you can feel weak, but you are not completely broken.
However, there are moments when people can lose hope completely, when they think their situation cannot be changed, and when they believe that prayer will make no difference. Once they lose that glimmer of hope then their groan spreads throughout their entire being. Rather than being a groan of the body, it is a groan of the soul. And it is about such a situation that Rav Yochanan says that אף כל גופו של אדם, ‘it even breaks the entire body of a person’.
The month of Ellul is a time where we read the above-mentioned words of Yona which were said to him by the captain as a fierce storm tossed his boat back and forth. In that moment Yona may have thought that his situation was hopeless. However, the words that the captain communicated to him expressed the idea that even when we are in the eye of a storm we can still hope. Yes, there are times when we face difficult situations and we experience a groan of the body. But as long as we are on this earth, we should hope, pray, and do whatever we can to improve our situation.
We may have friends and family currently going through a storm who, at this very moment, are ebbing from a groan of the body to a groan of the soul. And just like the captain of the ship, our task is to offer words of chizuk (strength) which encourage and give hope. And why? Because even in the toughest of situations, if we have hope, we have so much.