Thursday, August 25, 2016

Parashat Ekev: What was Hard about the Manna

Why is the man (manna) that we ate in the desert viewed as a nisayon, a test or a challenge? What was so hard about eating food that God provided each day?

I think the key to the challenge lies in the description of the man as a substance asher lo yadata, “which you didn’t know,” and, the Torah goes on to say, “which your ancestors didn’t know” either.

What was difficult about the man experience, what made it a nisayon, is that it was new, unfamiliar, something no one had ever encountered before.

New things are hard for us. The children started school this week and the first week is always a bit stressful. Taking a new job, entering a new school, moving to a new city, even driving to a new place can be a challenge.

Why? I think part of it is that new experiences make us feel insecure. We don’t know for sure the outcome. When we enter a new situation, the burning question is: will it work out? Will I make friends in this new place? Will I have enough to eat? Will I have enough time to do the work? Will I be successful? When we have been in that situation before, we know from past experience that it does work out and so we can relax. But in a new situation, we doubt—maybe that road doesn’t actually go to that place; maybe I can’t do this work -- we worry, we lack trust.

For the Israelites in the desert, the man was a challenge because they were used to normal food – you grow it, you fish it, you hunt it, you buy it from someone else who did one of those things. And then you cook it and eat it and you can rely on it to sustain you. But this new thing that appears with the morning dew – can it be relied on in the same way? Will it nourish us in the same way, help our children grow, keep us properly nourished? How do we know it will work out? How do we know it will continue, keep coming each morning, when we have no historical knowledge to rely on and we are not involved in the planting? How do we know that all will be well?

How do we ever know? The truth is that even in normal situations, which are not “new” to us, change happens and we cannot really rely on the predictability and stability of life remaining static. We took a vacation this year next to a river in West Virginia and I was struck by the constancy of the river flow. The water, the current, is always moving – sometimes slower, sometimes faster – but always moving. Change, new things, are actually the norm.

So how do we approach the river of life? How do we encounter the changes, the new situations? They are indeed a nisayon, a challenge, and I think a challenge that asks us, like the Israelites in the desert, to continually develop a greater level of bitahon, trust in God. Trust is the antidote to insecurity; trust provides the balance to ride through the rapids. It is a moment of complete relaxation; the ground will hold us; we do not need to struggle and fight to make it happen; we can trust that each morning we will wake up and find the man, find what we need in this world. In a new situation, we may not know how things will work out, but trusting means having faith that they will work out in the way that they are meant to work out and we can relax and do our best, not out of a sense of frenzied anxiety or insecurity, but out of a sense of joy and trust that it is right to do our part and the world is in good hands.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Parashat VaEthanan: On Places of Refuge

Among many other remarkable parts of this week’s parsha (including the Shma and the second recounting of the Ten Commandments), the Torah reports that Moshe took the time to designate three Cities of Refuge on the eastern side of the Jordan. Moshe has just told the people that he begged to go into the land but was not allowed to do so. Since he cannot cross the Jordan, he took the opportunity to do the mitzvah of separating and designating at least these three Cities of Refuge on this side of the border.

What are the Arei Miklat, the Cities of Refuge? They were 6 levitical cities designated for the absorption and protection of unintentional murderers. Someone who killed another person accidentally could run to these cities and receive sanctuary so that blood avengers from the victim’s family could not pursue them.

The Torah mentions these cities of refuge on a number of occasions, here and in Parashat Masei and again later in Devarim. Here they seem particularly highlighted as something important to Moshe, something he felt he needed to take part in despite his inability to enter the land, an act he needed to perform in order to ensure the proper functioning of Israelite society in the land.

Why are these cities so important?

I think they represent the importance of mercy and forgiveness in society. From the perspective of the sinner, they represent in spatial terms what the High Holiday season represents in time – a place where we can admit we are, by nature, flawed, and have hurt others irreparably, and can nonetheless receive absolution and forgiveness. We need such sanctuaries in life in order to continue to function. Otherwise the weight of needing to be perfect would stop us from ever acting at all. We need to know that as long as we have good intentions, even if we end up hurting people and doing the wrong thing, there is a place we can go to be absolved, there is a sanctuary, a safe haven, a place of refuge which will hold us until we have the strength to act again (actually for the murderer in the City of Refuge, it was until the High Priest died). Without such a pocket of assurance in life, we would be paralyzed by fear of misaction.

And from the perspective of the goel hadam, the family blood avenger, this space is equally important. We are all both sinners and avengers. We hurt others and are ourselves (or our family members) the victims of others. The question that comes up this season is not just: what will we do with our own impossible imperfections but also: what will we do with that of others around us? How will we learn to forgive and to let go, not to take revenge, not to hold a grudge in our hearts for all the little misdeeds of our fellows. This is a difficult emotional task and I think Moshe understood its importance in creating those Cities of Refuge. Those cities represent the end of a cycle of violence. They represent the ability to say: Yes, he hurt me, but it will end here. I will not carry this grudge into the next generation and perpetuate the hatred and ill-will. I will let it go at the borders of the City of Refuge. Why? Not just for the sake of the perpetrator, who needs our mercy, but also for my own sake – for the sake of the sanity of those who are hurt. Revenge eats a person up inside. On top of the injury itself, we end up hurting ourselves with layers of hatred and mean-spiritedness. The City of Refuge teaches release.

As we approach the month of Elul, with its call to repentance and forgiveness, may we feel the power of the Cities of Refuge, both as a place to rest our weary flawed selves as sinners and as a place to let go and forgive those who have hurt us.