Have you begun to ration your news consumption yet? Many of us are finding it the only way to get through a week in these strange and stressful times. Just scanning headlines can feel as if one is absorbing blow after blow of disappointment, concern, anger, and yes, of fear.
One source of guidance – I do not say consolation – in these days is the knowledge that our ancestors have been down this path before. Somehow, those who came before us developed the discipline, the courage, the ability to continue to give Shabbat all the respect of focused Jewish practice in the face of worse situations than ours. In fact, it becomes a kind of special Jewish resistance to refuse to let the fears of the moment overwhelm the legacy of a lifetime.
The fourth book of the Torah, which we begin to read again this Shabbat, is called BaMidbar. The parashat hashavua is therefore also called BaMidbar, since the name is derived simply from the first recognizable word of each section of text.
BaMidbar is translated “in the wilderness.” (The Hebrew is so much more evocative than the English name “Numbers.”) In this endlessly repeated paradigm of Jewish existence, something compels us to leave the encampment at the foot of the mountain where we have taken refuge since leaving Egypt. We set out into an unknown future, heading for a destination that it turns out none of us will reach. The uncertainty of each day is compounded by emotional blows: repeated outbreaks of violence, fueled by the unrelenting stress of fear.
Our ancestors wondered as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai: Who to believe? What path to follow? How to stay safe? And how to survive the blows of chance that will continue to fall? Later generations have had reason to ask the same questions, and now it is our turn.
The time of their wilderness wandering did not at first seem that it would be long. Geographically, the land of their dreams was not a long journey away. But things don’t always work out as planned. There’s an old Yiddish (of course) expression for that: mensch trakht, Gott lakht, “human beings make their plans, and G*d laughs.”
I imagine a G*d laughing not derisively at our naïveté but sadly, the way that Jewish humor is a form of laughter through and despite bitter tears. We make our plans, we look forward to a happy, sunny, or at least safe future for ourselves and those we love.
We who take refuge in plans, we don’t like uncertainty. It is anxiety-provoking and unpleasant. The wilderness of BaMidbar is difficult and fearsome, and seems to take a lifetime to traverse. Whether it actually did or not, it felt like an unending horror.
The discomfort of uncertainty is nevertheless necessary if we are to move. The anguish of frustration and fear is the spur that we need if we are ever to arrive at that place which is the other side of the wilderness. And, just like love, we cannot avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and fear if we would live a full, meaningful life.
Where are we going? On an endless, uncertain, frightening journey. We don’t know where it will lead.
We cannot have the reassurance that our plans will be realized. All we can have is the eternally present experience of our ancestors which flows through us all, whether we were born or chosen into this people.
We can only hold hands (masked and gloved for now!) and step forward together, into the uncertainty, into the future.
We are taught that for our people, the way forward is together: kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh , all Israel stands in support of each other. (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a)
And we are taught that in this struggle we Jews find our greatest meaning: if the uncertainty never ends, so also our Torah – source of the meaning that supports the structuring of a life – will also never end for us.
Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?
To teach us that if one does not surrender oneself to the wilderness,
one cannot understand the words of Torah.
And to teach us that just as the wilderness is endless,
so is the Torah without end.
(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)
COVIDלֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ הוֹכֵ֤חַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart. Reprove your neighbor, but incur no guilt because of them. – VaYikra 19.17
On this Shabbat we come to the end of the book VaYikra, Leviticus, and we are confronted by a difficult section of the Torah called the tokhekha, “reproof.” We already learned a few weeks ago the mitzvah above, that rather than be angry or condemning of another person because of their behavior, one should find a way to speak up.
This has been called the most difficult mitzvah of the entire Torah, and not for the reason one might immediately infer. Yes, it is difficult to confront someone whose behavior is causing distress to oneself or to others, but that is not the worst of it. The worst of it is if your attempt to repair a breach causes one which is greater.
In these days of frustration, of anger – even rage – at the politicization of so much that should not be, one of the greatest challenges is that of remaining loyal to the vision we each have for ourselves as ethical human beings.
When we are confronted with official callousness towards deaths caused by COVID-19 or by state violence, when against our better judgement we tune in and watch a presidential press conference, when reading the news about some group that protests its inconveniencing blindly using high-sounding rhetoric, it is difficult not to run afoul of the mitzvah of tokhekhah.
We might find ourselves wanting to descend into hating those who hate, and dismissing as worthless those who seek power and profit at the expense of many lives. And here is the real challenge.
Judaism teaches that every human being is born holy. Each one of us reflects the light of the divine. When we deny that, we undermine our own ethical strength in these days.
A Jew, badly used by her employer, fell into the self-serving trap of complaining endlessly to everyone she could about the bad behavior from which she suffered. Finally one day her interlocutor responded: “He must be in so much pain to be so cruel.”
She was brought up short. A new perspective opened before her. Rather than sinking to the level of responding to negativity with her own negativity, she began to reflect upon the possibility of feeling sorry for the boss who had caused her so much grief. His behavior was, after all, pathetic. She realized that it was a two-way dance, and that up to that moment, she had been, all unwittingly and feeling the victim, willing to play her part in it.
From that day, even though she continued to work for him, her boss never again hurt her the way he had. His behavior did not change; her willingness to accept it did.
The real danger of evil people is that they drag us down, slowly and by self-righteous degrees, to their level of human interaction. This is the failure of tokhekhah. The only way to rebuke someone without failing is to cling to the standard we’ve set for ourselves, no matter the temptation to “fight fire with fire” or to “give as good as you get.”
Stay focused on the pure, clean light within you. Let it seek out the spark of light in all life that surrounds you. This is the ethical work of our days.
Our parashat hashavua this week is Emor, which contains an account of the mitzvah which is the practice of counting the Omer.
וּסְפַרְתֶּ֤ם לָכֶם֙ מִמָּחֳרַ֣ת הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת מִיּוֹם֙ הֲבִ֣יאֲכֶ֔ם אֶת־עֹ֖מֶר הַתְּנוּפָ֑ה שֶׁ֥בַע שַׁבָּת֖וֹת תְּמִימֹ֥ת תִּהְיֶֽינָה׃
From the day on which you bring the omer [sheaf of elevation offering]—the day after the Shabbat—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete.
As we near this Shabbat, many of us are counting more days that this of coronavirus lockdown.
Many of us are experiencing a bewildering range of strong, negative emotions: the fear of contagion, the sadness for lives lost, the disappointment of missed milestones, the frustration of cancelled events. Some of us are grieving the death of loved ones, struggling with anger over the callous bungling of our political leadership, perhaps even feeling rage over the treatment of the vulnerable.
We are facing terror and helplessness, two emotions that no one ever wants to be good at enduring. Yet – and this is perhaps no surprise – our Jewish tradition has been here, has done that.
For two thousand years, this time of counting the Omer has been associated with mourning.
According to the Talmud, tens of thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students died in a plague during this time, and the blow to the community was so great that the feelings of loss continued ever after. Because it was said to happen during this time of year, between Pesakh and Lag baOmer (the 33rd day of the Omer count), these days have been marked by mourning practices ever since (observant Jewish men do not shave, weddings are not held).
Another interesting theory is that the plague is actually a cover story, and the catastrophic number of deaths we suffered were actually those of young men who followed Bar Kochba into the third, and final, war against Rome. The Talmud records:
The Romans killed [Jewish] men, women and children until their blood flowed into the Mediterranean Sea… It was taught that for seven years the gentiles cultivated their vineyards with the blood of Israel without requiring manure for fertilization. (BT Gittin 57a)
Whatever the reason, these days of the Omer have existed for us as a time in which mourning is never far from the surface. What could be more appropriate for us in these tense and uncertain times, as we live with an abiding sense of mourning, more and more aware of all that is lost in these days?
We are not good at mourning; we are not practiced at sadness. We live in a society which rewards optimism and encourages hope, and as a result we do not even have the vocabulary to express our feelings. We feel badly, and we are told that we are feeling grief. But not every sadness is grief, and we cheapen the word by overuse. It reminds me of the urge to recite shehekheyanu for every happy moment, again mostly because of a lack of awareness of other brakhot, other options for articulating joy.
How can we learn to more deeply feel our feelings? For some of us this is a real difficulty. Feelings themselves have great power, and it takes careful discernment to differentiate what we feel from what we are. It’s useful to remind ourselves that feelings are not acts; that it is never wrong to feel what we honestly feel. Indeed, if we can dig into what we feel, we will learn what we need to learn about why we are feeling this way.
The sign of maturity, for Jewish tradition, is not controlling feelings, but controlling the acts that are prompted by the feelings. It has been said that we have no thought police in Judaism; neither do we denounce the way we feel. G*d willing, we do the right thing even though we are afraid; as it has been said, courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act regardless.
Feeling sadness, letting oneself live there, is necessary if one would feel joy when the sadness lifts. Feeling disappointment and anger is necessary if one would learn to differentiate between emotions wisely. Not everything wrong causes grief; not everything bad causes anger.
On Lag baOmer – literally “the 33rd day of the Omer,” since Hebrew numbers are also letters, and 33 in Hebrew is לג – the traditional semi-mourning phase of the Omer count ends. We don’t know why. Did the plague let up? Did the Jews win a battle?
All we know is that we made time and space to mourn effectively enough that when it was over we could feel the uplift, and it too is enshrined in our tradition.
This counting of our own plague days will one day be over. If we have not experienced our emotions fully enough during this time so that we can articulate them, how will we ever be able to feel the joy we anticipate as we would like?
Today in the mystical Omer count we confront the human – and holy – characteristics of hesed and hod, kindness and gratitude. These qualities of our lives come into sharper focus when we are mourning and someone seeks to comfort us. May we feel all the qualities of our days, the bitter and the sweet, fully and deeply, that we may truly be said to live each day we count.
למנות ימינו כן הודה ונביא לבב חכמה
Limnot yameynu, keyn hodah v’navi levav hokhmah
Teach us to count our days, that we might become wise
Some of us are lucky enough to call ourselves fortunate these days, if despite the pandemic we are feeling well and our greatest challenge is cabin fever. We know that so many are suffering, both within our community and beyond.
How to respond? What can we do in these days to share whatever we are lucky enough to have? How not to be dragged down by despair and fear in these strange and uncertain times?
We are fortunate in another profound way: we have an ancient tradition that guides us toward justice at all times. The ancient Israelite prophet Amos once used a wonderful metaphor for the Jewish idea of justice: he called it a “plumbline.” Our ancestors learned about the plumbline, אנך anakh in Hebrew, from Egypt, where it was developed over four thousand years ago.
A plumbline, held in the hand of a worker on top of a wall, is a weighted string. When allowed to hang freely it shows the “plumb” angle and allows those building to avoid creating an off-centered structure.
Jews and those who love them who belong to and are informed by Jewish community and its ethics are lucky: we are never adrift, wondering how to act or react, how to initiate or respond – how to help and how to live.
This week our parashat hashavua includes a direct treatment of this theme. Whether your issue is how to vote in our local elections, how to figure out what you can do to share what you have safely and effectively, or just how to think about your life this week and next, the guidance for Jews is clear. A few examples:
1. That which we are lucky enough to have is not ours alone, according to the Rabbis who developed our justice tradition. That which we’ve worked for is only rightfully ours once we’ve shared it (the law of tithing is of Jewish origin). The work of our hands is not kasher until it is shared – that goes not only for produce but for other kinds of productivity.
וְכַרְמְךָ֙ לֹ֣א תְעוֹלֵ֔ל וּפֶ֥רֶט כַּרְמְךָ֖ לֹ֣א תְלַקֵּ֑ט לֶֽעָנִ֤י וְלַגֵּר֙ תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֔ם
You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. (Lev.19.10)
2. We must insist upon the truth, we must support those who work to find and uphold it, and we must speak truth ourselves. While it’s tempting to become cynical and adapt our expectations to the shocking deceit displayed by those with power over us, that way is not plumb, to use Amos’ image. That house will fall.
לֹ֖א תִּגְנֹ֑בוּ וְלֹא־תְכַחֲשׁ֥וּ וְלֹֽא־תְשַׁקְּר֖וּ אִ֥ישׁ בַּעֲמִיתֽוֹ׃
You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another. (Lev.19.11)
Erev Shabbat falls on May Day, long associated with the celebration of all those who labor, i.e. all essential workers. The plumbline of Jewish justice is not swayed by nightly applause when cheers do not have the ethical effect of just wages, access to care for all regardless of social status, and respect for human dignity among all people.
לֹֽא־תַעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר׃
You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning. (Lev.19.13)
You shall be holy in all your doings. That is the clear Jewish plumbline by which we can check our words and our doings. And what is is to be holy? It is not to give in to cynicism, not to despair of the effectiveness of your acts, and not to forget that you are part of an ancient, incredibly wise tradition of human beings striving to understand how best to live our lives in gratitude for the gift of life we are given.
Need more support for your choices? Torah study will sustain you for the rest of your life if you immerse yourself in it. It will help you hold that string steady and see how it falls clearly, all the days of your life.