Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Respecting Our Limits

There is an old saying, "the more things change, the more they remain the same." That could be applied to an episode in this week's parsha of Chukat. The Torah again tells us of the complaints of the People of Israel. Miriam died and they found themselves without water. Rather than simply ask Moshe's intervention, they again resorted to whining. "And the People fought with Moshe saying to him 'We would have been better off dying as our brothers died before Hashem. And why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness for us and our animals to die. And why did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place..."

Sounds familiar right! But their is one critical difference between this complaint and the others we have read in the weeks prior. While the tone and content feels the same, the people are different. This complaint was not issued by the generation of the wilderness, those who left Egypt. No, that generation already died in the wilderness. Now we are at the end of the 40 year journey and its the children Moshe is dealing with, the ones destined to enter the Promised Land. This story occurs, as the Torah tells us, after Miriam died. The complainers were a new generation. Can you imagine how frustrating it must have been for Moshe to hear and see the children acting no better than their parents. Indeed he must have wondered whether this People would ever mature and become worthy of their destiny.

Its at this point, here in the story of the People's revolt over the water, that the Torah informs us that Moshe and Aharon sinned. The Torah conceals from us exactly what they did that was considered sinful. We know from the verses that they failed to sanctify G-d in front of the people. But what that failure consisted of is not clear. Rashi explains they hit the rock rather than speak to it in order to draw forth the waters. The Rambam explains its was Moshe's anger at the people that was unwarranted. Their is much to explore among the commentaries here. One thing is certain, the sin was consequential. Moshe and Aharon were condemned to die in the wilderness, and not enter Israel, because of it. We read of Aharon's death already in this Parsha of this week.

The question I want to explore with you however is not the nature of the sin committed but rather how it is that Moshe and Aharon came to commit it. I mean, Moshe and Aharon weathered the People and their testings of G-d over and over. Ten times G-d says they tested Him in the 'midbar'. Each time Moshe and Aharon found a way to lead with excellence, never getting compromised by the rabble and their agenda. They remained above the storm.

Why here? Why now? Why are Moshe and Aharon vulnerable? Now when the journey is near done and they are at the gateway to Eretz Yisrael, how is it that they experience a lapse of leadership?

I believe if we but read the story with a focus on what the text is trying to teach me the answer is clear and compelling. What does the story of the 'mai mereeva' begin with? If you recall the lead-in tells us of the death of Miriam. The Sages already explained that the well in the wilderness that sustained the people for 40 years was in the merit of Miriam. When she died,immediately, the waters dried up. The mutiny followed.

Moshe and Aharon were grieving. They had lost their sister. And not just any sister. Miriam in many ways was like a mother to Moshe. It was she who watched over him in the Nile. In the wilderness, from all we can surmise, Moshe's only friends were his brother and sister. When Miriam dies Moshe and Aharon are vulnerable. Do they get to sit shiva? Do they get to be comforted? Do they have the leeway to take time off from their responsibilities and mourn?

Its certainly not clear they did. And the People's harsh complaints over the water occur immediately after Miriam's passing. That's when the well dried up. Even the best of us, even Moshe our great teacher, is vulnerable to mistake/sin when in a compromised state of being. Even Moshe and Aharon can err when they are off center. And nothing puts one off his/her center like sustaining a loss, especially the loss of a loved one.

Our wise tradition mandates that we take care of ourselves. We need to know that we are compromised in the aftermath of a loss. It does not matter whether the loss is the passing of someone we loved or the grueling process of a divorce. Loss is loss. And in the context of loss even when we feel ourselves able and capable of decision making, we really are not. We are not fully ourselves. And frequently it takes years to be restored to the person we were prior to the major loss.
Many a professional in human dynamics has advised those coping with loss not to make major decisions in the first year or two after a significant loss.

The lesson the Torah is teaching us here is both relevant and personal. We need to know that no matter how strong our resolve or how firm our faith, we are impacted by life circumstances. We need to be sensitive to our limits and neither render important decisions/advice for others nor make decisions for ourselves in times of

The story of the parsha tells us the consequence for Moshe of his sin at a time of personal vulnerability, a weak moment for which he paid a huge price. I dare say the price we may pay, G-d forbid, for making a decision at a time when we are not fully ourselves can have equally long lasting deleterious consequences.
It's vitally important we take care of ourselves and respect our emotional limits.

Shabbat Shalom

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