“Most misunderstandings in the world could be avoided if people would simply take the time to ask, ‘What else could this mean?”” – Shannon Adler
“Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.”
In one of the most famous mass performance reviews in written history, the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) starts out with Moses doing a recap and overview of the Jewish people since they left Egypt, and the review was hardly favorable. In re-telling one of the lowest moments of that period, the “incident of the spies,” (where the Jewish people were afraid of entering the Land of Israel after hearing the fearful report from the infamous spies), Moses pointedly reminded the people how they spoke against God when they said: “Because of God’s hatred for us did he take us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us.”
This is tantamount to claiming that the whole thing was a setup from the start, in that God freed us from Egypt, only to deliver us into the hands of a much worse enemy and certain death. We have the luxurious vantage point of having read “The Book” (OK, and we saw the movie too), so we know the story has a happy ending. But, in defense of the masses, which had been manipulated into a state of terror by the spies, can we empathize with their pain when they “claimed” God hated them? What was really going on?
The Longing Underneath the Complaint
When our children come home from school, smarting from a bad grade or being disciplined, for example, and they cry out with unwavering certainty, “My teacher hates me!” are they making a statement of objective fact – or are they really expressing an unspoken fear of not being loved by the teacher? What is the unexpressed longing underneath their complaints?
While it’s very challenging to remain centered, conscious and non-reactive when someone is bitterly complaining, look under the hood of a complaint – especially an irrational one – and you will likely find someone who is insecure, wondering if he or she is loved. Just to be clear, I don’t regard terrorism and anti-Semitism as “bad behavior masquerading as a cry for love.” I can’t go there. On the other hand, disciplining myself to ignore how a message is delivered so as not to lose sight of the underlying expression of a legitimate need, is a choice I make in my relationships.
If God Only Loved Us…
When seen in that favorable and compassionate light, then, you could consider the irrational complaints and accusations the Jewish people made against God, as evidence of very insecure people questioning their relationship with God. In their minds, in their logic, it made sense that if God really loved them, he could have kicked the Egyptians out of Egypt and let the Jews live free and safe in the fertile Nile delta. If God really loved the Jewish people, why were they the ones wandering in the desert? Why were they attacked and beset by people trying to destroy them? And why did they have to face years of battle to establish their homeland? At Mt. Sinai, God called us His beloved. Really? Is this what love looks like?
When my husband was a little boy, he lived in the DP (Displaced Person’s) Camps in Germany after the war. “The bad Germans lost the war,” he was told. And yet it was these “bad” Germans who walked around freely, seemingly doing as they pleased, while he could only peer in bewilderment at them from behind barbed wire, confined to the grounds of a concentration camp that was hastily upgraded to house the Jews that had nowhere else to go. The little boy was confused. Is this what winning looks like?
And when we read the news today, with worldwide terror a commonplace event, and anti-Semitism rising up with a terrifying velocity, isn’t it possible to wonder whether God really loves us as well? Like – what’s the deal? So are life’s challenges proof of God’s hate or evidence of His love?
A Mother’s Blessing
Every Friday night I lovingly lay my hands on my daughter’s head and I ask that God should bless her like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Isn’t that beautiful? But if you think about it, how exactly were our foremothers “blessed”? They had lives of unbelievable challenges, hardships and adversities that seemed much more like curses than blessings, as well as having to endure dysfunctional family dynamics that would compete with any sensational tabloids we see today. Why would I want any of that for my daughter? Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to find a better role model? I racked my brain to come up with a female figure of merit and distinction in any arena that would exemplify an “easy” life and I couldn’t. And not in the fictional world either.
But then I found her – a beloved and famous young woman who has not just the perfect easy life, but the perfect body, long flowing hair, flawless skin, adoring faithful boyfriend, great clothes, loyal and subordinate friends, cute pink car – complete with its own carrying case. In case you didn’t figure it out, it’s Barbie. Suddenly the catchy pop lyrics sound in my head: “I’m a Barbie girl. In a Barbie world. Life in plastic. It’s fantastic.” Now how does that sound as a utopia? And yet, that is what the Jews were complaining about. In essence, if God loved them, then they should have been able to live like Barbie and Ken – but in Egypt.
Life’s Bigger Purpose
God had – and has – other plans for us. He wants us to have a real, meaningful and fulfilling life. God wants our lives to shimmer with transcendence and holiness, endowed with purpose and service. God wants us to have a life where we overcome adversity, where we choose and grow. As Rilke said, “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.”
You can’t move up the ladder by being a plastic doll or yearning for a life of ease. And so, while our forefathers and mothers didn’t have easy lives, they had profoundly meaningful and spiritual lives, lives that charted our very course and destiny, and whose qualities are embedded in our spiritual DNA. When we don’t confuse the good life with an easy life, then we can embrace challenges as a means of self-discovery. And when we don’t expect our lives to be simple, then we can tap into our significance. In giving us the Torah, you could say that God was the first life coach ever – exhorting us to live our lives by design and not by default. That sure looks like love to me.
And therefore, while the complaint of the Jews in the desert against God was perhaps understandable, in the end, it was ultimately unjustifiable – because the longing underneath the complaint equated easy street with God’s love, and adversity and challenge with God’s “hatred”. So even if its origin was fear, such thinking was distorted and immature. And when others were looped into the negativity, these complaints were rightfully deserving of Moses’ derision.
Whenever you may face individual and national challenges, do not fall prey to insecurity that doubts God’s love and connection. Remind yourself of times in your life where you have endured suffering that led to blessings or growth, and ponder the ineffable survival and spirit of the Jewish people over the millennia. Life is not a “set up.” The Kotzker Rebbe is famous for saying that there is nothing more whole than a broken heart. But don’t worry – that’s how the light gets in.
Internalize & Actualize:
- Think of a time that you acted out or behaved in a certain, which really was a defense mechanism for how you were truly feeling. Write down the adjectives to describe your behavior, and then alongside it, write down the adjectives that represented what was really going on in your head and heart.
- With the above in mind, think about a situation where someone else behaved towards you or responded with the negative behavior that was similar to yours. Knowing that your behavior did not represent how you were actually feeling, rewrite that situation and how you feel towards that person when you believe that their true feelings were hurt, fear, insecurity (etc.), rather than rudeness, anger or blame (etc.).
- When in your life did someone push you well out of your comfort zone, and as much as you may have resented it at the time, you eventually came to recognize strengths in yourself you would not have discovered without that challenge? How can you apply this lesson to situations you are now facing where you would rather take the “easy” path than the one less traveled?
“It has nothing to do with who I am as compared to everyone else. It has everything to do with who I am in companionship with God.”
– Craig D. Lounsbrough
Try as we might, we can’t shortchange process. The American psyche cherishes innovation. We admire the overnight success (and wonder why we can’t be so lucky). But we don’t know the back-story. Ask any “overnight success” and he or she will tell you that it was years in the making. As Samuel Goldwyn said, “Give me a couple of years and I’ll make that actress an overnight success.”
When we try to shortchange process and leapfrog over a necessary course of development, what happens is that we fall, inevitably, and, what is worse, we often fall to a point lower than where we even started.
When that happens, it can be very destructive to the psyche because we can become cynical, and feel hopeless, thinking that we just gave it our very best shot, and alas, failed – again. So why bother.
But wait, you might ask – aren’t there instantaneous flashes of insight, moments where we can feel a real paradigm shift in that proverbial “aha moment”? Yes, but these are flashes, and flashes are, by definition, temporary.
An “aha moment” is a glimmer of potentiality. It reveals a new possible pathway. We need to create new consistent behaviors to turn that glimmer of a pathway into an actual trail, and in so doing, lock that insight into a new way of being. Otherwise, it disappears almost as fast as it appeared.
The Process of….Process
No matter what, there is a process. We had a 49-day trek that took us from Egypt (Passover) to Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah (the holiday of Shavuos). When we left Egypt, the Jewish people were said to be at the 49th level of impurity, and it is one explanation for why the redemption took place when it did, for had we descended one more level, to the 50th level, we would have been considered unredeemable.
Every day thereafter we spent walking away from Egypt and towards Mt. Sinai we ascended one level of holiness, so that when we arrived at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah we were at the highest level of holiness.
Jewish time is not linear, but cyclical, an upward spiral. “What goes around comes around” is an expression we take literally. Every year, to commemorate that process, we count those same 49 days from Passover to Shavuos, spiritually reliving that journey with the intention that every day brings us higher and closer to the spiritual energy of Shavuos.
Trek Like a Jew
Thousands of years ago we couldn’t jump from Day 1 to Day 49; even now, we can’t pass Go and collect $200. We all know the quote, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with the first step.” When we feel overwhelmed, it’s useful to slow things down and remember that all we can do is take one step at a time. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself for years. No surprise that I still had a hard time getting my act together. And so I realized a deeper truth for myself, that it’s not necessarily true that the journey begins with the first step. What is true, however, is that the journey of 1,000 miles begins with the thought of the 1st step. And the thought of the next step. And so on. This is a critical distinction.
In every Torah portion since leaving Egypt, God is trying to shift how we think, how we see ourselves, to break down the slave mentality and build us up to being priests unto the nations. All of the laws have an external expression in the world of action, but they should come from an internal reality. “Be holy, for I am Holy” says God. Holiness, however, has to be “whole”. Thus, as we see in this week’s Torah portion, “Behar,” holiness must permeate our business transactions.
In a free-market society, in a bottom line material world where we are disconnected from holism, many of the laws in “Behar”, make no sense. Rather, they seem irrational and counter-intuitive. For example, one law dictates that every seven years, all work on the land must cease and the produce that grows is free for the taking. Ask any MBA – this concept is unreal! But that depends on whose version of reality you are buying into.
There is an animated musical film that came out years ago – The Prince of Egypt – where Moses is feeling pretty down and Yitro (aka Jethro), who is Moses’ father-in-law, inspires him with a song about “looking at his life through heaven’s eyes.”
Think Like a Jew
What is the reality of our lives? What is reality anyway? There is a lot of “reality” out there from which to choose. As a matter of fact, our brains receive billions of bits of information per second, but our brains can only process an infinitesimal amount of it, excluding over 99.9%.
We choose which sliver of “reality” to focus on and what to exclude. Thus, our very perspective is a matter of choice. We can choose to perceive that sliver of reality that will reveal holiness. “Behar” means “on the mountain”. It’s as if God is saying, “Look at your life from up here. Don’t just buy into what you think the world is, what you think nature is, and what you think the reality is. Look at reality through My Eyes. Look at your life through the eyes of heaven.”
When I went to law school, we were often told that we weren’t there just to learn laws, but to learn to “think like lawyers.” The purpose of learning Torah is not just to learn laws, but to learn how to “think like a Jew,” because everything we do starts in our minds.
Before you take the next step of your journey, remember that it is preceded by a thought. Remember the thought that you are holy, look for that sliver of reality that reveals holiness, know that heaven smiles down upon you to light the way, and your footstep is bound to be sweet and sure, and you will not fall.