Chukat-Balak 5780 – A Belief in G-d

By: Michael Carr

So just how many people does it take to change a light bulb?
-reform synagogue two people (first man and then the woman turns the bulb)
-conservative synagogue – it’s done by committee
-orthodox synagogue – they don’t change anything

“People underestimate their capacity for change. There is never a right time to do a difficult thing.”

-Author, John Porter

For some people today and in centuries past, one thought seems constant: in times of change and uncertainty, a belief in G-d is a coping mechanism that can provide comfort and peace of mind.

Change and our experience of change can be difficult to accept, and may feel uncomfortable, disruptive, annoying, inconvenient, inappropriate or not suitable.  At the same time,  change can be necessary for safety, personal and public health as well as freedom.  Sometimes, change requires a belief in G-d.

As we know Torah describes stories and commandments that ‘yield’ to times when change was often necessary.  And, like the Torah which has transcended centuries of change,  the Jewish people have likewise learned to do the same. So change should be easy for us – right?

Grief can obscure belief and disrupt change.  Grief can get in the way of change and our experience of change can become difficult to accept. If you don’t believe me think about how Pharaoh’s separation anxiety got the best of him and he took pursuit of the Israelite slaves due to his ‘personal loss’.  Or maybe, just maybe, it was his FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) some days after he agreed to let us go on a 40 year long+ religious retreat and thought we’d ‘be right back’. Nah – most likely based on that miracle of the sea separation thing he probably just wanted to finish us off.

Really, grief, bereavement and personal loss may cause us to feel uncomfortable, annoyed, disrupted and inconvenienced.

I mean, today, let’s look at say, how a change in personal public health freedom, is affecting all of us.  Particularly those who feel their freedom to breathe unobstructed without facemask or acknowledging the reality of the pandemic  itself is a personal inconvenience, annoyance or loss.  This type of change allows one to go it alone/on their own -their way – so it no  longer becomes a personal inconvenience without regard for others public health/safety.  How ‘bad’ could it really be to not ‘socially distance’ with a mask? Well my basic understanding is that perhaps it might take only one exposure to turn ones health into a chronic expensive personal health issue or possibly death.

By the way-if you’re looking for a couple of good reads because you have some free time to explore more about this ‘stuff’ (like how this Pandemic could mutate) check out an early nineteenth century scientific (non-fiction) book  from scientist Constantin Feriherr Von Economo regarding Encephalitis Lethargica. Economo was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist of Romanian origin and Greek descent who studied this public health issue that intersected/followed the 1918 Flu pandemic.

Also, if you just can’t ‘get enough’ about all things pandemic check-out a more recent fictionalized novel called the End of October. Von Economo is a ‘mind blowing’ read and compliments the non-fictionalized “End of October” in hyperbolic fashion. Nevertheless, after these reads, quarantining seemed to me to be ‘the right prescription’.  Now back to our D’var…

In this week’s parasha God instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the red heifer; Miriam dies; Moses ‘hits a rock’…. to bring forth water rather than speaking to it; Aaron dies. The Israelites have ended 40 years of travel in the wilderness and are just about to enter Israel.  They are in the desert of Zin specifically in a place called Kadesh.

Let’s briefly explore loss a little more. Miriam dies in Kadesh. Aaron dies on Mount Hor. One difference in their deaths is that Aarons death follows Miriam’s and occurs when the Israelites leave Kadesh before the crossing of the north Jordan river.

Did you know, according to Talmud, attributions or merits applied to Miriam, Aaron and Moses  were: water, clouds and manna respectively?  Remember that time in the book of Exodus when there was a lack of water?  Boy – talk about unruly behavior due to change from slavery to freedom!  There is that topic of change – and coping.  So we know how that worked out – right?

The Torah refers to three experiences where water was lacking – two in Exodus and one in Numbers. In each case, with a belief in G-d (delivered by Moses) the Israelites were hydrated.

In the first thirst experience – water in Marah was bitter.  G-d directs Moses to drop a tree branch in the water to sweeten it and the Israelites find relief.

As we know, however, from the second drought experience noted in Exodus, the Israelites demanded water from Moses at  Rephidim – (also the location of the battle with the Amalekites where the Israelites prevailed).  It is said that Moses believed he was going to be stoned due to a lack of water. Instead Moses reaches out to G-d for assistance, acknowledges G-d first, strikes a rock and water flows.

Finally, In Numbers, the third thirsty experience from the Torah,  the Israelites are once again faced with drought. After 40 years of ‘free flowing water’ the complaints and whining have returned:  “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before G-d. Why have you brought us to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there? Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines, or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.”

Moses responds with, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” – But why?  Why would the prophet Moses – a compassionate and tireless leader of a free people say such a thing?

While there are many interpretations on the distinction about the water flowing from the rock in Exodus and water flowing from the rock in Numbers (today’s Parsha) there is also a possible connection to Miriam which to me seems to transcend this ensuing thirsty drama. Following Miriam’s death, the water ‘from the rock (spring/well)’ dries up which has not occurred in 40 years. Moses cannot find the right rock to hit, he and Aaron go to the Temple of Meeting to obtain G-d’s advice, he goes back to hit the rock he thinks is the right rock but only drips appear.  Over-whelmed, he hits the rock again in anger, disappointment, and disillusionment and water flows.

How did Moses the prophet cope with the change due to the loss of his sister Miriam?  Not too well from what we read in the Parsha.  In fact, as described in the Torah – it sounds as if Moses was a little reticent.  Remember he struck ‘the rock’ twice in a disrespectful (out of control) act to G-d and he got his ‘pass’ to the land flowing with milk and honey taken away.

Perhaps Moses was  too  close to G-d and had temporarily lost the respectful and spiritual aspects of his relationship to G-d.  Perhaps Moses was too comfortable with and had grown too accustomed to striking the rock and letting the water flow and could not find the right rock.  Or perhaps, Moses was simply suffering from personal loss, was sad, grieving, depressed and anxious over the death of his sister and he projected those feelings upon the parched Israelites through his behavior and speech.

So it seems in this case that feelings of loss can cause us to exhibit behaviors that are unbecoming of who we are and turn our vulnerable inner souls suffering from emotional loss towards anger, impatience and intolerance as a defense mechanism.   How do we reconcile these messy emotions for ourselves?

From a recent article found in Forbes, a contributing author, Tony Ewing, suggested these three simple ideas:

1) Laughing at yourself stems anger
2) Singing like you mean it makes you happier, more social and puts you in sync with others
3) Being optimistic and practicing hope stops stress

Then there is this final thought:  in times of change and uncertainty, a belief in G-d is a coping mechanism that can provide comfort and peace of mind as well.