Shabbat B’Ha’alot’kha: None of Us Can Do This Alone

The self is not built to carry its own weight.” – Roy Baumeister, social psychologist

The Jewish people are hard to please. Apparently against all odds they have escaped from Egyptian slavery, as is described in the Torah narrative of Exodus. Having had a time to rest and recover from that fearful event all during the book of Leviticus, they are now invigorated – and complaining. 

There isn’t enough food.

The food isn’t good enough.

There isn’t enough water.

The water isn’t good enough.

Are we there yet?

Let’s go back to Egypt.

Bless him, even Moshe Rabbenu was not always up to the task of staying positive in the face of the real challenges of leadership. And so in this week’s parashah we see him telling HaShem 

לֹא-אוּכַל אָנֹכִי לְבַדִּי, לָשֵׂאת אֶת-כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה

“I cannot by myself alone bear all this people.” 

– Moses, BaMidbar 11.14

After Nirvana, the laundry, goes the Buddhist saying. If we are able to maintain the same equanimity in both situations, all will be well. But for most of us, the valleys of life where we spend most of our time cause us to quickly forget the moments of peak experience. After the giving of the Torah, the Israelites are saying, what have you done for us lately?

And they’re right. Leadership requires constancy, and respect for the vagaries of human existence. And Moses is right: no one person can fulfill all of another human being’s needs. 

This moment of extremis for Moshe does not cause him to back away from leadership, though, but to envision a different kind of leadership. Seventy of the Israelites, those who have demonstrated their own capacity for leadership, are called forth and 

וַיָּאצֶל מִן-הָרוּחַ אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו, וַיִּתֵּן עַל-שִׁבְעִים

HaShem drew upon the spirit that was upon Moshe and shared it with the seventy. 

BaMidbar 11.25

Moshe is called the humblest of leaders, and this week we see why. His servant Joshua protests that others, even outside these 70, are acting as if they have divine authority along with Moshe. The true leader’s response is not Joshua’s – to restrict access to the divine – but to recognize it where it is true, and lift it up:

הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי; וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְהוָה, נְבִיאִים

“Don’t worry about my authority. Would that all the people were prophets!” 

BaMidbar 11. 29

May we come to understand Torah’s teaching here: that none of us is expected to lead alone, and that all of us may be possessed of something that others will respond to. It is the people as a whole who carry the Presence of HaShem, not any one of us.

It’s up to us together to create the holiness of a community. May we learn to respect the complaints and the compliments along the way as necessary learning, as we learn what it means to truly be a meaningful, intentional, blessed community.

Shabbat BaMidbar: Wilderness of Doubt

שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה וּרְפָאתִֽיו׃

peace, peace to the far and to the near – Isaiah 57.19 

This week our parashah records the beginning of the wandering of the Jewish people – for the Torah, the wandering lasted for 40 years, but in a real way, it has never ended. We wander in a wilderness of words, of beliefs, and – most of all – often of terrible, existential doubt.

Far from us, rockets rain down on Israelis and Palestinians alike this week, and we watch from afar, horrified at the senseless violence and the loss of precious lives.  All too often at a moment like this we see the terrible things human beings do to each other, and some of us may ask how G*d could allow such suffering.

Close to us, Israel is attacked in ways that sometimes veer from legitimate to antisemitic, undermining both our sense of loyalty to our Jewish community, and our ability to join with those we usually seek out to work together for justice. Must we be anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, to be good, ethical Jews?

From afar it may seem easy to see the path to peace: condemnation without nuance is the refuge of the exhausted, impatient, and ignorant. It’s the close up peace that is far more difficult to envision and to engage. When you know and love people it’s much harder to dismiss their feelings, their lives, their experiences.

The Jewish community is fortunate to have built-in resources for these moments. The only question is whether or not Jews will use them. Those resources are community connection and support, a tradition of learning which is fearless and compassionate, and an eternal injunction not to despair.

We, all of us who follow the Jewish path of meaning, are about to stand, once again, at Sinai.

Na’aseh v’nishmah, our ancestors proclaimed at Mt Sinai, that make-or-break moment of commitment to the spiritual path we still follow. “We will do and we will shema.” This singularly important word in our Jewish tradition, shema, should not be translated “hear” in a passive sense; our ancestors when they used it meant to listen, to pay attention, learn…and to obey the ethical impulse within and without.

Not to be passive, to obey, means to engage. To continue to learn, not to turn away and close our eyes: to pay attention to and defend those nuances where compassion and empathy still live.

The lesson of Sinai which we will contemplate on the Sunday night and Monday morning of Shavuot is that we must commit to continuing to learn, and to do. If there is anything that the last four years should have taught us, it is that as Jews (and those who love them, and walk that path with us) we are gifted with a strong prophetic ethical tradition. It supports us when we wander in doubt, by reminding us that doubt is not the enemy of truth, but that which clears away the dross that obscures it.

It’s not easy. We have learned in the past four years that antisemitism is real, and alive, and a vital link in the growth of white supremacy. 

It is not news to us who are students of modern Jewish history that criticism of Israel is often shaded with antisemitism. It is not an unfamiliar feeling to be uneasy, feeling caught between our ethics and the fact that we are sometimes cudgeled with them unethically.

On the mountain we are summoned:

“Choose life, if you would live, by dedicating yourself to Eternity, holding fast to that which is true and enduring.” – Devarim 30.19-20

In these final days of the Omer count,within the days of preparation for the holy day of Shavuot,

come and learn once again that we are partners with the Holy One in the ongoing work of creation. Rededicate yourself to mitzvot that keep you from wondering what you can do to assert and strengthen your choosing, ethical self. We don’t have answers, but we do have the ethical imperative to stay focused on the Image of the Divine within each human being – and that is already a profound response to suffering far from us, and that which is near.


Further learning:

A remarkable teaching in the Babylonian Talmud (Nedarim 20a) reads: a person who has no shame, such a person’s ancestors did not stand at Sinai. I don’t read this as genealogical research, but as ethical teaching. To be heirs of those who stood at Sinai, to stand ourselves at the foot of the mountain, means not only to affirm identity. It means to take responsibility. Acts of senseless violence perpetrated in the name of Judaism are acts of desecration, to be decried and resisted, not enabled and tolerated.  

– Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israel

I’m reminded that in that workshop with JFREJ and Cherie Brown, she mentioned that Harvey Jackins, founder of Co-Counseling, once drew a diagram of anti-Semitism as a loose noose. Perhaps the Jews in the US are safe for good. Or perhaps now is a time of loose nooses for us. Or maybe, they’re not so loose after all.

– Yotam Marom, Toward the Next Jewish Rebellion

Though we know not what we will do, our eyes are upon You. 

Remember mother-love and merciful kindness, for they are eternal. 

May that kindness for which we yearn be upon us. 

We are brought very low….

have compassion, HaShem, have compassion. 

– Tahanun, Miles Hochstein, By The Shore of a Western Sea

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukotai: Emet v’Emunah

“true and reliable” in the Age of Fake News

אֵ֥לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ אֱמֶת֙ וּמִשְׁפַּ֣ט שָׁל֔וֹם שִׁפְט֖וּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶֽם׃
You must speak the truth, and judge truthfully and fairly in all your dwelling places
Zekharyah 8.16
The double parashah that we study this week, BeHar and BeHukotai, bring us to the end of the Book VaYikra (Leviticus). In it we find social justice halakhahwhich seems to us, these days, wise in ways that modernity did not take into account: let the land rest, let the people rest, let the creatures rest, if you would live and thrive. 

The concept of the Yovel, the “Jubilee” year, is presented in parashat BeHar:

וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּ֗ם אֵ֣ת שְׁנַ֤ת הַחֲמִשִּׁים֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ יוֹבֵ֥ל הִוא֙ תִּהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם וְשַׁבְתֶּ֗ם אִ֚ישׁ אֶל־אֲחֻזָּת֔וֹ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶל־מִשְׁפַּחְתּ֖וֹ תָּשֻֽׁבוּ
You must make the fiftieth year holy by proclaiming release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be yovel for you: each of you shall return to the place you came from; each of you shall return to your family. 

It’s an attractive idea, but this concept of the cosmic do-over, where we take all the playing pieces off the board of life and start over again entirely equal and fresh, is of course unworkable in a society. Memories are created, and scars remain.  

There’s an advantage, though, to the accumulation of memories: the learning creates communities of meaning such as ours. One of the foremost needs of a human being is to belong to a community that affirms one’s sense of self and place in the universe. As the social psychologist Roy Baumeister has written, the self is not meant to carry its own weight. 

Belonging, it turns out, is so central a need for us that we prefer it to any other good. In “Belonging Is Stronger than Facts,” in today’s New York Times, the journalist Max Fisher considers the way in which the need to be part of a supportive group outweighs abstract ideals such as truth and justice.  

“As much as we like to think of ourselves as rational beings who put truth-seeking above all else, we are social animals wired for survival. In times of perceived conflict or social change, we seek security in groups. And that makes us eager to consume information, true or not, that lets us see the world as a conflict putting our righteous ingroup against a nefarious outgroup.This need can emerge especially out of a sense of social destabilization. As a result, misinformation is often prevalent among communities that feel destabilized by unwanted change or, in the case of some minorities, powerless in the face of dominant forces.” 

As our people nears the holy day when we annually relive the moment of our commitment to each other and to our path of meaning, it is worth considering the gift in our hands: we know where we belong. We are part of a people and a purpose which stretches far beyond a moment’s uncertainty; we belong to a history and a future that needs us to learn it and shape it. Each of us is needed. 

Emet v’Emunah are the words we repeat every time we gather to pray: “truth” and “reliability.” True and enduring, we say, is this community of spiritual seekers. True and reliable, we affirm, is our support for each other. True and eternal, we declare, are the beliefs and values of our people and its sense of the Holy in and beyond our lives.

In this age of fake news, we Jews have a truth we can cling to, and that informs and strengthens our belonging with each other. From the mishkan of the wilderness built by the gifts of the Israelites, to the sacred spaces we wandering Jews construct in so many places so many generations later, we belong to our story, and it needs the gifts each of us bring.

The truth is that we need it just as much as it needs us; us, and our reliable presence for each other. That is a truth that has lasted much longer than the lies and hate of any era.

Even when it weighs us down too, at least we know that a better way of being is possible. May we cling to that, and to each other.