Shabbat BaMidbar: Now It Gets Scary

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)

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat BeHar-BeHukkotai: The Torah of Tokhekhah

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 story:

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.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Ariel

Shabbat Tazria/Metzora: “The One Who is Ill Shall Be Separated from the Camp”

…and other surprisingly relevant aspects of ancient Jewish text in the days of COVID-19

In years past it has been tempting to dismiss this doubled parasha in VaYikra (Leviticus) as superstition at worst and outmoded at best. Because of the focus on skin disease, we laugh at “the dermatologists’ parsha” and wait for more uplifting examples of holiness and ethics in the chapters to come.

It’s a funny thing about ancient wisdom, though, how one day we are brought up against the fact that our human reality is, existentially, no different.

With only a few thousand years of human life between “the one with a strange and unknown infection showing on the skin” in the ancient Israelite camp and those of us with a strange and unknown infection of our own to fear, the parallels are striking:

  1. One is immediately quarantined, for a period of up to fourteen days. During the time of isolation one is followed by healthcare professionals
  2. One does not diagnose oneself
  3. One must not make light of the disease nor risk others’ health by not informing them
  4. The disease may be spread on surfaces
  5. The isolation lasts as long as there is a chance of contagion

The worst of it all, then and now, is the uncertainty. One may be seriously ill, or not, from the contagion; one may be isolated for a short period, or longer. 

Imagine the state of the one separated, for her good and ours, from the camp of the rest of us: the feelings of fear for one’s own future, compounded by the sense of guilt, wondering who else he may have infected. The boredom as the days go by; the second-guessing whether this is all really necessary. And the fear of death.

All this fear and uncertainty is magnified when we are alone with our thoughts; unlike a bad dream, we awake to the same lack of stability, the same worry that cannot be assuaged right now. It may be, tomorrow, but we cannot know today.

This is a terrifying time; but it is not grief, contrary to what you are being told by some opinion articles on line. Grief is existential loss; losing one’s high school graduation ceremony or one’s girls’ night out is difficult and disappointing. In the hierarchy of things, it ranks far below losing one’s job. And none of that compares to losing loved ones. 

We haven’t been taught this kind of hierarchy; many of us haven’t experienced this up close. We don’t have the vocabulary for our current experience close at hand. But our Jewish people does know this situation, and is familiar with it.

What we are experiencing is existential uncertainty.

This existential uncertainty is a terribly difficult condition for us all – especially for those who have not experienced anything like it before. Those who have known the way that poverty and prejudice can crush one’s plans have some wisdom to share, but those who have been accustomed to a comfortable sense of being able to enjoy planning a happy future are bereft.

The self is not meant to live in isolation. We are herd animals and we know who we are in relation to others with whom we live, and within groups where we feel safe. Of course, the safety and security was always an illusion, but it’s easy enough on a normal day to go shopping, or take a hike, or visit a friend to keep the fear below consciousness.

But now we are forced to face it. We have no way of knowing when this will be over, what the world will look like, or even if we will live to see it. In the meantime we Jews (and those who love us) know a tremendous blessing: our people has been here before. We know how one suffers existential fear and celebrates the holiness of life at the same time, without denying the truth of either reality. 

You may be feeling isolated. You may be feeling terrified. But you never need feel alone. You have a community, and opportunities to be in touch that will give you not only grounding, but help you develop the understanding, and perhaps even the wisdom, that only those who know the existential struggle, and its beauty, can know.