Rising Above an Emotional Response

44th Torah Portion, 1st in Deuteronomy

Devarim 1:1-3:22 (105 verses)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Synopsis:

Moses begins his final instructions to the Children of Israel, focusing on the physical journey. Moses reviews the people’s reactions to the negative reports of the spies and the appointment of Joshua to succeed him. He also informs them that all of the leaders of the community who left Egypt have died. Moses reiterates that the Land of Israel is allocated by God to the Israelite tribes. God informs Moses again that he will not enter the Promised Land.

Commentary:

It is of interest to note that invariably this Torah portion occurs in the week before Tisha B’Av (the evening of July 15 this year), the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews from their homeland. The beginning of our reading (1:12) in particular relates to this memorial of that destruction and offers us guidance for repairing the damage we create in our personal relationships: How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering? 

Rashi teaches that the “troubles” refers to the habit of litigants in a court case who, perceiving that they were losing, would say, “I have more witnesses, I have more proof,” thus bottling up the legal system. The “burden” refers to the incessant mockery of Moses: the misguided assumptions by the ignorant that Moses was contemplating and plotting evil against them. Finally, the “bickering” refers to contentiousness and threats of revenge for imagined wrongs. 

This mockery of the legal system and people’s inability to be at peace with one another has a resonance in our own times. We are all in a long and brutal exile, not just from the central place of Jewish worship in the Holy Land, but from our neighbors — because we are petty and spiteful toward one another (Shabbat 119b, Bava Metzia 30b, et al.). It is our spiritual failure when we are unable to recognize the importance of others in the life of our community. Our behavior toward others is one of the greatest tests of who we are. 

Often, we are very quick to judge perceived wrongs from others, resulting in a contentious response. A Jew, a moral human being, is commanded to be an instrument of good to others, obligated to guard against wrongdoing to others. The Torah’s standards, its extensive body of laws and moral guidelines, compels the thinking person to examine, correct and perfect interpersonal conduct, even to the extent of learning from another’s misbehavior. One’s own behavior should rise above one’s “need” for an emotional response. This is not to deny that others should be sensitive to your feelings as well; they may not realize that they have touched a sensitive nerve. It is up to you to help them understand, with sensitivity and patience, that your viewpoint is equally valid.

Looking back at Moses’ lament about how the people are insensitive to other human beings, we see that the future is not hopeless. We do make it to the Promised Land. Later books of our Bible teach us that we have the potential to keep the highest possible standards at all times. From the book of Proverbs we learn that our religion demands we rise above the responses of conflict and victimization and do what is right in the eye of God, “… in order that you may walk in the way of the good and keep the paths of the righteous.” (2:20)

Questions:

  1. What is lost in a discussion when you focus on the legalities in order to prolong a process in hopes of gaining an advantage?
  2. What is lost when you assume the worst in others?
  3. What personal behavior of yours has become a barrier to peace with another person?

Focus:

 “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy” (Micah 6:8).