‘Don’t make your ways combative’

A doctor once told me that pain in my leg is a sign of my back problems. A symptom that pops out in one place may really be flowing from another malady someplace else. The same is true for emotional aches and pains. Stress in one area of your life can compound and surface elsewhere.

This is the last Shabbat of 2020. It has been a year of sorrow and suffering; loss and limitations. A lot of emotional aches and pains are still flowing to and fro.

This week’s portion of Torah is saturated with intense emotions like trepidation and heart-stopping shock. As Joseph’s brothers prepare for their journey to retrieve their father, Joseph advises them “don’t be quarrelsome along the way” (Gen. 45:24). They are, after all, bringing life-affirming, good news to Jacob. Joseph doesn’t want their trip to feel combative, filled with recriminations. Joseph’s advice can also have applications for our times. It can be reread as meaning, ‘Try not to make your ways overly combative.’ Ornery mannerisms take an emotional toll.

There is a vital difference between opinions and lived experiences. Feeling pain is quite different from imagining it or expressing ideas about it. We often think those with whom we disagree just have totally different opinions. In fact, they may have totally different experiences.

A case in point from this year’s Hebrew calendar. In addition to wishing our neighbors a blessed Holy Day, today is also the 10th of Tevet which is historically associated with the beginning of the 6th century BCE siege of Jerusalem. More recently it has become a day on which the Mourner’s Kaddish is prayed for the Six Million. A day was required on which to observe the unknown yahrzeit of those murdered in the Holocaust, and today is that day. Among Holocaust remembrances – between January’s international observance and our springtime Yom Hashoah – today’s Kaddish for individual souls offers a personal and tender moment of remembrance.

More broadly this observance always falls just a week following Hanukkah’s fullest eighth-light. I realize this year for the first time what this means. Just a week following Hanukkah’s celebration of the Temple’s rededication, we signal the ominous onset of its eventual destruction. None of us knows what’s around the next corner.

Yet as we enter 2021, may we hope for year of less harm and more safety, of less loss and more discovery. Even though being ill-tempered or more amenable will not change all of our lived experiences, we’d be wise to heed Joseph’s advice to keep combative aches and pains at bay. In so doing, may we enable more grateful emotions to climb into companionship along our ways.

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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