In reading through this week’s parashah, we’re repeatedly forced to encounter the truth that being human means constantly surrendering to the many “unexplainable” aspects of our lives. This parashah is so rich precisely because the willingness to surrender to this truth is not something that comes easily to many of us.
The text starts off with detailed instructions about an elaborate ritual for spiritual purification following close contact with a corpse. On a rational level, the ritual and its purpose are confusing and, more so, seemingly irrelevant. Moving on, we learn that first Miriam and then Aaron, two out of the three leaders of the Israelites, pass away only a short time apart. One loss lacks any type of obvious impact on the community, while the other elicits a strong and prolonged reaction. Finally, we witness a challenging situation where Moses, following an episode of uncharacteristic rage, is informed by G!D that he will no longer be the one to lead the Israelites into the Promised land. On the surface, the consequence is seemingly grossly out of line with the misbehavior.
Despite our best wishes, encountering the “unexplainable” is usually done on life’s terms, not ours. This can be a daily occurrence, in ways both big and small. Whether we’re dealing with rules that don’t make sense to us (e.g., the purification ritual), judgments from authority figures that we don’t agree with (e.g., G!D’s ruling), or being forced to confront death and the reality of ultimate loss (e.g., the deaths of Miriam and Aaron), each of us handles this truth in our own unique ways. As many of us have found, having to encounter the “unexplainable” often brings out our worst parts, playing on our fears, anger, and other darker qualities. Many of the struggles that brought us to this Holy community are rooted in the unhealthy patterns we developed while insisting we could live life our own terms.
Personally, I have all sorts of unproductive (and eventually unhealthy) ways of dealing with the “unexplainable” aspects of life. Often I withdraw, avoid, and separate. I separate myself from my feelings (anger, fear, confusion, etc.), from others, and ultimately from the realm of the Holy. I do this by buying into my own lies that I have the power to transform the “unexplainable” into something more “controllable” by creating distance and boundaries around it. Almost always, these futile attempts to manage the situation create greater chaos (internal and external) and dis-order for me and for others.
Fortunately, this parashah doesn’t just serve to remind us of the truth that there are “unexplainable” aspects of life, but also points us towards important “certainties” from which we can draw strength and direction. For example, the incident where Moses loses his composure starts with the Israelites’ “grumblings” about a lack of water. In response, G!D provides Moses with very specific instructions for dealing with the situation:
…assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts. (Numbers 20:8)
While the instructions are quite straightforward, dealing with a quarrelsome community through a mysterious act of G!D poses too big a challenge for Moses. At this point in his life, he was overwhelmed and lost, unable to maintain his connection with his faith in G!D and in himself. Consequently, he deviates from G!D’s plan in several key ways, insisting that his way is better than G!D’s way.
Afterwards, G!D explains:
Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given to them. (Numbers 20:12)
This decree seems to come out of left field and, understandably, catches Moses (and many commentators) off guard. While its starkness is brutal, this level of clarity about G!D’s will is notable and valuable.
When encountering the “unexplainable,” it’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in our emotions. I believe the Torah is offering us a productive means of working through our big feelings. It’s the emphasis on “affirming G!D’s sanctity” that I find so powerful and relevant. And for me, “affirming G!D’s sanctity” means maintaining a connection to my holy soul and reconnecting when it’s lost; this provides a point of focus and a pathway for taking the “next right action.” So that when we encounter the “unexplainable,” we can check in with our holy souls, asking: are our actions operating from a place of ego – driven by frustration, fear, or loss? Or are we aware that, despite our pain and discomfort, we can choose to surrender and act from a place of faith and strength?
As we continue to encounter the “unexplainable,” may we be blessed with the clarity of connecting to our sense of G!D’s sanctity and our ability to affirm it through our actions.
Chaplain Adam Siegel