From Bad to Worse – Parshat Chukat 5779

bad-to-worse.jpg
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

Israelites-behaving-badly.png

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

equal-opposite-reaction

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.

Heart and Soul – Parshat Chukat 5776

Heart and Soul

As my dad wrote to me after I began my first year of rabbinical school:

You have to know that my love is unending whether I am physically present or in God’s hands.   You don’t have to be scared for me – this is our expression of faith. You don’t have to be scared for you – the material is easier or harder but you will find ways to reach your goals. Let us all learn to spend our time and our conversations expressing our love, respect, admiration and remember that we are indeed betzelem Elohim, created in God’s image. I will always be in your “inbox” and if the words are the same or similar it is because we always try to reduce all we know and feel into these funny bullets (hearts). The down side – it isn’t just a 45 minute ride to give you a hug.

This was an email in which my dad laid out what he hoped would be his legacy to me: a willingness to face fears and a determination to reach goals. He wanted me to know that who I am is largely because of where I came from and because I learned and grew in a house with values that shaped me.

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 are 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 sung to God for the water of the well.

As Aaron dies, the text in chapter 20, verse 24 reads, “Let Aaron be gathered to his kin: he is not to enter the land that I have assigned the Israelite people, because he disobeyed my command about the waters of Meribah.” What does it mean that Aaron was “gathered to his kin”? Perhaps it’s suggesting that Aaron’s good qualities “enter” and be gathered into the souls of the living who knew him. Perhaps gathering to his people means being brought in so as they are forever a part of the lives of those who continue to love him and remember him after he is gone.

Like my father’s email to me, the Torah teaches us that the inherited qualities and shared love that came from those before us are always a piece of us. When we lose a loved one, we lose their physical presence, but not the unending guidance and love in our lives. Our job, like the Israelites with Aaron, is to carry on those lessons.