William Hamilton

A time to wrestle, A time to rest

Elie Wiesel’s first yahrzeit will be observed this coming week.  One his most faith-warming moments for me came 20 years ago when he published “A Prayer for the Days of Awe” in the New York Times.  It captured how a lifetime of trauma and torment had begun to give way to a personal yearning for faith.  “In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role” Wiesel conveys to God. “Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?” In the end, Wiesel’s longing for renewed connection to God did not depend upon God’s deserving it.  To the contrary, anger and angst persisted.  Yet they were eclipsed by his personal longing. “Let us make up: for the child in me” he concludes, “it is unbearable to be divorced from you so long.”

There are times to wrestle and there are times to rest.  Sometimes our course of action is determined by dreams and sometimes it is determined by dangers; sometimes by pragmatics and sometimes by possibility.  So often, however, what we bring to a circumstance determines what we take away from it.

This week brings us to the Torah’s classic moment when ‘what we see’ is decided by ‘what we’re looking for’.  As we learn of the failed scouting expedition of the Spies which condemns the wilderness generation, we wonder Who’s idea was it in the first place?  Later on when Moses retells the story he says it was the people’s idea, ‘you approached me’ (Deut. 1:22).  But from the opening words in this week’s portion of Torah, it is clearly God’s idea.  These divergent attributions can be reconciled by noting the difference between the action described in Numbers and the action recalled in Moses’s Deuteronomy retelling.  God asks them “to scout” (la’tur) the land.  This is the same verb used to describe the Ark leading the People in search of a resting station (Num 10:33 and Deut. 1:33). One reason why the expedition ends badly is found in Moses’ retelling where different action verbs are used “they excavated” (v’yach’pru) (Deut. 1:22) and “they spied” (va-yiraglu) (Deut. 1:24).  Simply, the scouts were on a different project than the one God had designed for them.  They were excavating where God was hoping them would be filling in a vision.  They saw a wrestling place where God hoping they would find a resting place.

Beliefs and opinions should be scrutinized and revised when appropriate. The scars from some tragedies never fade.  Yet relationships and experiences can help us glimpse new perspectives over time.

Wiesel makes ‘faith reunions’ available.  He does not make them necessary or inevitable.  Some of us still wrestle, unable to rest.  Yet if we finding ourselves scouting for the possibility of a personal reunion with a personal God, then perhaps what Elie found possible later in life can also be so for us someday.

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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