William Hamilton

A breath of divine thought

All credit goes to God. All failures go to us. Such a ledger seems religiously self-serving and forced. What’s more, it frankly feels inaccurate. You unloaded that truck. Your toil and practice earned the outcome you deserved. So why do wilderness wanderings consistently credit God with successes and the people with failures?

Turns out that tucked inside this formulaic mindset are a couple of essential life-tools that can make you better company with yourself and with others.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has noted that the real battle most of us face in life is ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there.’ If we can be victorious against destructive and dysfunctional drives, then we can withstand all manner of threats from external enemies. So when Scripture has us own our failures, it’s not trying to beat us up. Rather it wants to train us in the restraints and responsibilities that free thinking and free being require.

What’s fascinating is that the same chapters in this week’s portion of Torah which thrust accountability to the forefront, with the denial of Moses’s entry into the land, also parade before us encounters with events that are totally out of our control. We don’t get to decide whether the Edomites and the Amorites will permit us to pass peacefully through their territory. Both times they violently rebuff our peace-seeking overtures (Num. 20:18, 21:23).  So even though mastery of internal conflict is key, external forces still make rude and recurring visits more often than we’d like.

Essential in both battles is our active posture. We are not passive recipients, mere victims of tragic events over which we have no agency. Quite the opposite. We decide how the story goes by our response.

And when you don’t like how it seems to be ending, you act to turn it into the middle of the story by giving it a different ending.

What appears at first to be a sterile theological equation – positives: due to God, negatives: due to us – can instead begin to ventilate a breath of divine thought (ru-ach kodesh). May its current loosen a motion of your soul toward God, as a gentle repositioning of a patient’s pillow eases and soothes.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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