Our Empathic History – Parshat Chukat 5781

It’s difficult to see someone you love in pain. This is certainly the case for me. It hurts me to see people hurting, emotionally or physically. When one of my children – or even my husband – has a bad cut or scrape, I can’t look at the injury or hear about it without my heart sinking into my stomach or even feeling a little lightheaded. It isn’t so much that I can’t stand the sight of blood, it’s that I feel deeply in my body the pain of other people. I carry their hurt with me. Sometimes this is called sympathy pain (although maybe it should be called empathy pain) or even just being sensitive. Regardless, our ability to “feel” with another and to hold each other’s feelings and pains is one way in which human beings can support and show compassion for one another. 

In addition to feeling physical pain, there is a different experience of sharing non-physical pain, the kind of pain brought on when someone’s honor is damaged or disrespected. The question explored in this week’s Torah portion is who shares that type of pain when you experience it? Is it your immediate family? Is it your circle of friends? Or could that pain possibly be shared with people who came long before us?

This week we read Parshat Chukat, which is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. In the middle of these major developments, we are also given a purification process that seems somewhat out of place in the context of the significant events that follow it.

As the Israelites travel out from Kadesh, Moses sends messengers ahead to the king of Edom. He shares the following in chapter 20, verses 14-16: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt.” It’s quite a dramatic message, and ultimately a message of faith to say, “We’ve been hurt and abused, but we’ve got God with us.”

One line feels a bit odd, however. What does it mean for the Egyptians to have dealt harshly “with us and our ancestors?” The word used is avoteinu, which is the way the Torah refers to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. But we know that aside from Jacob, none of the rest of our ancestors were in Egypt, which means none of them were dealt harshly with. So why phrase it this way?

Bamidbar (Numbers) Rabbah interprets this to mean that when Israel suffers, our ancestors in heaven feel their pain. We often talk about how the pain of the present can affect future generations, but we don’t often think that our past can feel our current pain. If you think about it, though, it makes sense in relation to how we already think about the past. I’ve heard plenty of times “Your dad would be so proud.” Do they mean that he would only be proud if he were still alive? Or is there a deeper connection that suggests he’s still proud on some level that we believe in, but can’t really understand? Or could I make the memory of him proud? And if the memory of him can be proud, can the memory of him also feel shame or hurt or pain? 

This week our Torah portion sends us a hopeful message, especially as we’re finally renewing relationships with people in person. The message is that we are all connected in many more ways than through either our stories or through our physical interactions. Rather, it’s both. And perhaps coming to this realization that we can feel each other’s pain, see each other’s vision, and help each other achieve greatness would make our ancestors proud.

A Place for Rage – Parshat Korach 5781

We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to express your disdain, outrage, or disagreement in a public forum rather than privately with the person against whom you have the complaint. On the one hand, it can be constructive to call out misdeeds and to call out hate and bigotry, with the hope that we’re better able to hold people accountable for their actions. At the same time, this means that we’re constantly forgetting the power and importance of one-on-one conversations when we’re angry, upset, or frustrated. The repercussions from public rebuke can be extreme for both parties; at the same time the lack of consequence or follow through for private response is also troubling. So we’re left with a choice. Which is better: a public shaming with big repercussions, or a private shaming with measured response, but perhaps no significant change?

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Korach, debates this as well. This week we read the narrative detailing the revolt of Korach. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt, while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which turns out to be solid decision making as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

The reason for Korach’s revolt is that he feels he and his people don’t have a voice in the current leadership. Moses is upset, he’s trying to do the best he can, and doesn’t know how to move forward. They are at an impasse. Korah decides to make a big public display, airing his grievances and making sure that everyone knows why he is upset. Moses, on the other hand, tries to make amends and find common ground and perhaps a way forward. Tragically in the end, it results in death and destruction on top of the hurt feelings and hate. 

What do we learn? It’s hard to know when to speak up and turn a disagreement or difference of opinion into a bigger deal and when a private, more quiet approach is a better way forward. What we can say for certain after reading Parshat Korach is that it’s always best to consider all options before acting. If there are atrocities, if there is corruption, by all means, call it out. And at the same time remember it’s ok to be deliberate and strategic about how you approach delicate or potentially controversial issues. It doesn’t seem to be the preferred method in an age driven by social media and every minute news, but if this week’s Torah portion teaches anything, it’s that the measured response deserves a seat at the table.

If You Could See You Like I See You – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5781

I struggle with body dysmorphia. It isn’t something I talk about often, and this is probably the first time I’ve shared it so very publicly. I’m not exactly sure how I got to this point, but when I look at my physical self, I see my flaws instead of my strengths. What’s even more frustrating than this disconnect is the fact that I’m aware of it. I know the way my eyes view my body is a distortion of the reality of what others see. It’s like I’m at war with myself. My body birthed two incredible babies, and my legs carry me an average of 130 miles a week; yet, there are days when I look in the mirror and can’t see past my own perceived flaws instead of the strengths that I know are there. 

If you know someone who struggles with body dysmorphic disorder, you know there’s no “cure” or any way to talk them out of it. It’s an uphill battle no matter how much you praise their strength or beauty or how much you gently try to remind them that the issue is mental and not physical. When I get stuck in these moments, the thing that helps most is going back to a list I’ve made for myself of things I love about me. It’s not just physical things, but things that make up my entire being. This is usually the most reliable way to help me become “unstuck” from that destructive thinking mode.

While not all of us might have to deal with body dysmorphia, we all go through moments of doubt. Each of us is likely to experience times when we let negative feelings creep in. Our Torah portion this week reminds us that while being in a self-doubt rut isn’t helpful, there’s power in reframing our reality.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the story of the spies. The parshah begins with Moshe sending 12 spies, one from each tribe, into the land of Cana’an to bring back an accounting of the land. The spies return with their report, and it’s pretty discouraging. Two spies report back with a positive message, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear into the nation that they decide they do not want to make the journey into the promised land after all. This infuriates God, who then decrees that anyone who went out from Egypt at age 20 or older will not be allowed to enter the land of Cana’an. This generation will purposefully die out so that a new generation, unfettered by the destructive mindset of their predecessors, can start anew.

At the end of chapter 13, the spies come back and share their story. They use a lot of negative language when they compare themselves to the Canaanites. They use phrases like “we cannot rise up” and “it is stronger than we” and “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” Each statement is another way of saying “We’re not good enough, we are unable, unworthy, weak.” It’s not based in reality, as we find out, but in their perceptions. The Israelites lose sight of the fact that not only is God with them, but they have already overcome so many battles and struggles.

Somehow, the Israelites cannot imagine that others would see them as strong, brave, worthy or powerful. Instead of taking stock of how awesome and incredible they are, they’re comparing how they measure up to others. This toxic outlook spread beyond the spies to the entire nation, and it would have been the single viewpoint, were it not for Joshua and Caleb and their perspective. It wasn’t merely a different accounting of the land. Joshua and Caleb reminded the Israelites of God’s power and of their own strength, and they fought to push the other, more negative narrative aside. 

Like Joshua and Caleb reminding the Israelites how strong and courageous they are, Parshat Shlach Lecha is a reminder to us all that our perspectives of ourselves are sometimes so skewed that they leave reality in the dust. As we start to reopen our communities and see each other more often face to face, let’s remember that the version of someone you’re seeing might not be the version of themselves they saw for the last 15 months. Instead, let’s promise to recognize and reconnect with each other’s inner beauty and strength. That is truly how we’ll lift one another up.

Out of Love – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5781

It’s human nature to interact differently with different people. Chances are we’re going to be more tolerant of certain behaviors in some people and less in others. For example, if you cut me off on the highway, and then slow down in front of me, I might react somewhere between perturbed and enraged because I won’t have the context to understand you or your actions. On the other hand, if we know each other, and I know you’ve had a bad day, I’m likely to be more forgiving if you seem rude or checked out. This works in other ways too. While I might not think twice about reprimanding my children for a certain behavior we’ve talked about over and over again, I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction toward someone else’s child. So if the action is the same or similar, why is my reaction different?

The answer, simply, is love. In relationships with friends and loved ones, there’s a history and familiarity that comes with the territory. I’ll describe what this is like for me with my kids, but even for those of you who aren’t parents, you can probably relate in the way you treat your partner, parent, loved ones, or even pets. 

Neither of my children slept through the night until well after they turned two years old. As frustrating as that was, and despite all our sleepless nights, I still love them. And like many children, mine are mostly great listeners at school and pay attention when others talk, but for me, their ears tune me out and can’t hear a simple direction. Often aggravating, but yes, I still love them. We tolerate and accept things in different ways because we love each other; that’s what a family does. 

From this week’s Torah portion (and elsewhere in the Torah) we understand this to be part of our relationship with God too. Our parshah this week, Beha’alotcha, lands us with Aaron and Moses as they get into the daily requirements of their jobs. This section of text begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. We read about the first Passover sacrifice in the wilderness and how to celebrate Passover if we miss it the first time around. Then the text turns toward the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moses’s family – his father-in-law, wife, and children – return to join him and the rest of the Israelite nation on their journey through the wilderness.

As the Israelites are leaving Egypt and on this long journey, they complain. A lot. Moses gets to the end of his rope and finally goes to God and lets it all out. “Why did you do this to me?” he screams at God in chapter 11, verse 11 of Numbers. He goes on to complain that God made him take them out, and now God expects him to “carry them in my bosom like a nurse carries an infant.”

It’s an odd expression, but Ha-Emek Davar, a 19th century Russian commentator on Torah, suggests “even if the infant hits the nurse or soils her clothing, she does not reject the child.” Moses is essentially asking God, “They’re screaming at me, and hurting me, and breaking me, and I still have to love them?” God’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Yes, we have to love our family (in this case our people), and when those we love struggle, it is our job to support them. Yes, you need to show them unending love and encouragement, even when you feel beat down.

I began by admitting that we naturally alter our reactions and behavior depending on who we’re engaging with, but Parshat Beha’alotcha teaches us that our work as citizens of the world is to extend generosity, love, and compassion everywhere, especially when there is struggle or strife. You would want the same extended to you. 

Bless You – Parshat Naso 5781

I have certain voicemail messages saved on my phones – ones that hold particularly special meaning to me. Two of them are from my father. He left them a week apart (on consecutive Fridays) about two months before he died. I was working as an intern in Chicago, and he called to ask how I was doing and what I was learning, and because it was Friday, he’d end with a word about Shabbat. Part of his Shabbat message was asking how I was celebrating Shabbat with my roommate and friends, and he ended each of the voicemails with the priestly blessing. 

Part of what makes these messages memorable is that growing up, my parents did not bless us each week at the Shabbat table. We had Shabbat dinner, complete with Kiddush and Hamotzi. We had friends over and celebrated Shabbat regularly, but for some reason that one small ritual wasn’t a part of our celebration. My mom later told me that my dad always regretted that decision, and so when I moved to Los Angeles for rabbinical school, he decided to send me an email blessing each week. I still treasure those emails, but the voicemails are prized possessions. I can still hear my father in his own voice and words give me a blessing anytime I need it.

I’ll admit it was especially hard to listen to those voicemails when I was in early grief. To hear my father say “May God grant you peace” while I was angry at God for my father’s death seemed incongruous. To hear him say “May God turn His face towards you and see you” when I felt so unseen seemed empty. But the blessings were still his to me.

As we read Parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and about the establishment of a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God. Among these laws is the notion of connection to a community, to God, and to the greater “people.”

The most well-known piece of this text is the Priestly Blessing in chapter 6, verses 24-26. The blessing of the priest unto the people ends with the words “May God turn God’s face in your direction and put upon you peace.” The K’tav Sofer, a 19th century German commentator, remarks that peace begins in the home, then extends to the community, and finally to all the world. In other words, this moment of blessing one another is the locus of spreading peace, and it requires that we turn our heads toward each other first in order to start a movement of peace that radiates through our surroundings and into our community. 

Pay close attention to the words that describe the action in this blessing: “turn God’s face in your direction.” More important than the blessing itself is simply the idea that there is no peace unless all of us are seen. Just as God cannot grant us peace without first facing us as we are, we too cannot create peace among ourselves until we are all seen, until we are all heard. Just like those few minutes my father carved out for me in the beautiful messages I still have, granting someone that love and attention is perhaps the greatest blessing you can offer.