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.

30 Days – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5780

As the days seem to run together more than they usually do, it’s easy to lose track of weeks and months, but historically, dividing our year into 30-day segments has been not only significant, but necessary. When children are toddlers, we count their lives by how many months old they are. Bills are due every month. Programs we attend (now virtually) happen on a monthly basis. When we’re counting down to a major life cycle event like a bar mitzvah, we also count down by 30-day increments. There’s something almost instinctive about this time frame. Perhaps it’s because it has a clear, defined beginning and end. Or perhaps it’s because this cycle is naturally present in our lives in menstruation or the lunar cycle. Whatever the reason, the 30-day time frame has inherent value and meaning in our lives.

The number 30 also has biblical roots. Our double parshah this week, Parshat ChukatBalak, 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. 

Parshat Balak is also the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move because as it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. However, only the donkey can see the angel, Balam cannot, so Balam becomes angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

But it’s in Chukat where we see the significance of a month of time. In this section we read about the death of Aaron, and when Aaron dies, the community mourns for him for 30 days. In Hebrew and in Jewish mourning tradition, this is called Sheloshim, and this sacred period of mourning is still observed by many today following the loss of a loved one. For these 30 days life feels upside down, not just because of the emotions surrounding a death, but also because many Jews refrain from the normal celebrations of life, like parties or dances. Many people also do not shave or even listen to the radio. Abstaining from normal life for these 30 days following a loss are meant to help us readjust to our own lives and reenter the world in this new normal. 

Interestingly, just one parshah earlier, we learn about the redemption of a first-born child from service to the priest. This ceremony is also conducted after 30 days. In a sense, the adjustment of living without someone near to you is not unlike the adjustment to living with a new baby in the house – it’s a significant change. In both cases, life is different and new in ways never imagined before. 

The Torah understands that it takes time to adjust to new circumstances, and we are obligated as Jews to embrace that time. The more we can accept these transitional periods, the more capable we are of adapting and settling into healthy life rhythms as we change.

From Bad to Worse – Parshat Chukat 5779

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Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General

Sometimes it seems that no matter how bad things are going, just when you think it can’t get any worse, there’s more bad news. I’m sure you’ve been there. You’re at the end of your rope, dealing with every possible frustration you can imagine, and then something else comes along that totally knocks you down. Often this is simply the way life plays out; it’s an unfortunate coincidence and nothing more. Sadly, there are also the (hopefully) few times when someone else sees you at a weak or vulnerable moment and takes advantage. But why does this happen at all? Why do we prey on the weak, even when we know it’s wrong? It’s a behavior that reappears throughout history, including in the Torah.

Our parshah this week, Parshat Chukat, 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. When Miriam dies, we’re given one more water miracle on her behalf, with water flowing from the rock. We also learn that the reason Moshe and Aaron are not allowed to enter the land of Israel is because of the incident in which they struck the rock out of frustration instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The text concludes with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.

In chapter 21, verse 1 we read, “When the Canaanite, King of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he engaged Israel in a battle and took some of them captive.” The word used in Hebrew is not really “learned,” as shown in the common translation, but “heard.” When the king heard that Aaron and Miriam had died, he suspected that the morale of the nation would be low due to the loss of these two leaders, and he saw that weakness as a time to attack.

Clearly the King of Arad had his own power-hungry needs at heart, not the needs of another nation. You might argue that this act of aggression was simply a part of warfare; they saw an opportunity and seized it. And my counter argument would be yes, but at what cost? Why create an enemy instead of an ally? Why create more tension where there was less, or even none? Instead of attacking the Israelites when the other nation heard they were at a disadvantage, they could have sent aid.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the uptick in reports in the news about the conditions at the Mexican border. While the debate over immigrant status is a big part of this issue, I’d like to attempt to leave the political divisiveness out for now and focus on how we are treating our fellow humans. Regardless of your stance on how much immigration should be allowed or what that process should entail, the “solutions” we have for these families trying to escape life-threatening situations in their home countries are, in effect, kicking them while they’re down. We’re taking advantage of their dire situation to treat them in a less-than-humane way. I would urge you to question whether this solves the root problem or takes a bad situation and makes it worse.

Waging “war” in any form should be a last resort, not a temporary answer to a problem, because that kind of solution creates more problems than it solves. May this be the lesson we take away from the Torah portion this week.

Israelites Behaving Badly – Parshat Chukat 5778

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Amy McCready, the author who created the Positive Parenting Solutions resources, suggests that the real reason children misbehave is not out of defiance. To parents, it may seem like opposition for the sake of opposition, but the underlying reason, according to McCready, is about the need for belonging and significance. “Belonging” is the sense of connection and positive attention we seek in our interactions with others, and “significance” is the sense of autonomy and capability that empowers us.

In her parenting tips, McCready says that children act out when they feel that one of these needs isn’t being met, and she offers disciplinary strategies that work to fulfill these needs rather than offer a temporary solution (yelling, time-outs, etc).

Parshat Chukat, our Torah portion this week, is a perfect illustration of the often-used analogy of the relationship between God and the Israelites to that of parent and child. We have actual examples of how the Israelites revealed a desperate and oppositional nature through their behavior. Here’s a quick summary of the parshah. 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. When Miriam dies, we’re given one more water miracle on her behalf, with water flowing from the rock. We also learn that the reason Moses and Aaron are not allowed to enter the land of Israel is because of the incident in which they struck the rock out of frustration instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The text ends with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.

In the midst of these major plot points, the Israelites complain about the journey out of Egypt, as we see them do several times. Specifically, in chapter 20, verse 4 the Israelites plead with Moses, “Why did you bring us out to the desert for us and our beasts to die here?” In this moment the congregation is thirsty and discouraged. They left Egypt full of hope and optimism as God’s chosen people, but things are different when they’re “alone” in the desert. They lack belonging and significance. In isolation, they don’t feel the sense of belonging they had in Egypt. As terrible as bondage was, at least they knew they were connecting to something. And in the wilderness, with God and Moshe and Aaron making all the decisions, how could they feel significant? How could they feel like anything other than cattle being moved laboriously to another pasture?

But of course there’s more to this lesson than just a warning about whining in the desert. Even as the Torah shows the negative impact of this tantrum-like behavior, we also see time and again the reminder that things like community and prayer are the antidotes. When we feel disconnected or in turmoil, our Jewish community provides the sense of belonging and the help we need. When we feel like life has spun out of control, prayer offers a sense of significance, a feeling that we do have the power to change for the better.

May we go into Shabbat with feelings of both belonging and significance, and hopefully the tantrums will be few and far between.

 

An Equal and Opposite Reaction – Parshat Chukat 5777

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The way we treat one another often mirrors the treatment we receive. “Do not do unto others” isn’t just a moral directive, it’s an inherent part of how we interact. When Shiri is in a kind, sweet, or silly mood, it is much easier to be kind and sweet and silly back. When she’s upset and emotions get the best of her, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain my own cool with her. Most relationships – parent to child, spouse to spouse, employee to employee – are like this. The more people are willing to be kind and helpful or make you feel safe and secure, the kinder and nicer you are to those people. On the other hand, when someone makes you feel insecure, you’re more likely to respond defensively or close yourself off.

It might be subconscious, but this is how we rationalize emotions, especially the negative ones. If I think you’re being mean or rude to me, I tend to believe I’m completely justified in my rude response. Is it the best approach? Usually it’s not, but nevertheless we somehow create an artificial logic that thrives in the balance of action and reaction.

This week’s parshah, Parshat Chukat, is heavy with major plot points. Moshe’s siblings Miriam and Aaron both die, and we find out that Moshe is prohibited from entering the land of Israel. As the Israelites wander in the desert and relive their experiences with the Egyptians, perhaps they begin to understand some of the “why” they were treated the way they were. Chapter 20, verse 15 states, “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.” The Hebrew is va-yarei-u lanu, which is usually interpreted as the Egyptians dealing harshly with us, could also mean “they made us seem harsh.” In this interpretation the Egyptians viewed the Israelites as evil and deserving of persecution to justify their terrible treatment of them.

Obviously we can only speculate about whatever context the Israelites might have had regarding their history with the Egyptians and why they were enslaved. But when there is no reasonable explanation for the ways in which we are treated, we’re forced to look elsewhere for explanations to rationalize these actions. This particular translation of the text suggests the only way the harsh treatment of the Israelites could be logically explained is through a complete mischaracterization of who they are.

As anyone who has had the same conversation with multiple rabbis can attest, you can find the answer you’re looking for, but that doesn’t make it the best answer. The best answer is found when we’re able to put aside the false logic that surfaces in an emotionally difficult situation to address the heart of the problem, not just the reactions to it.