From narrow places to Godly expanse

“We live with the accelerator down from morning to night” Pope Francis asserts in the important new documentary, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. “This ruins mental health, spiritual health, the family, and the society…What the Jews followed – and still do, those who observe – was to consider Shabbat as holy. On Saturday you rest.”  Pope Francis uses the Hebrew word Shabbat, and refers to Saturday rather than Sunday.  Such a public papal expression is unprecedented.

Today’s challenges await remedies. As Shabbat reminds us that life is about more than power and possessiveness, we tend to rally around the one key solution to an insoluble problem.  “If only” we assert.  Early enlightenment thinkers believed, ‘If only people become more educated then they would become less brutal.’  Early Zionist thinkers were convinced, ‘If only the Jews had their own state and were no longer a burden on host societies, anti-Semitism would cease to exist.’  Today’s American Jewish leaders rally around the key to successful continuity – synagogues, day schools, summer camps, visits to Israel.   

Of course, the noblest projects are not panaceas.  Yet they do move the needle in valuable ways.  Arts and sciences have made huge strides in advancing public health and purposeful living.  Israel today cooperates with 140 countries around the world advancing sustainability and security, while combating disease, drought, and violence against women and children.  And Jewish agencies and projects inspire committed Jews to generate goodness at home and abroad.

A vital lesson is to not despair when it appears that a remedy is backfiring.  God’s Torah offers a guided tour for how to cope with collapsing despair in this week’s portion. Moses has spent more than a year teaching laws, building structures, and fortifying systems designed to bring holiness near.  But the people’s opposition and abstinence overwhelms him, so he confronts God.  “Why have you done bad to your servant…to set the burden of this entire people on me” (Num. 11:11). Hitting rock bottom, Moses stuns readers with his final words to the Lord: “And if this is how you treat me, kill me” (Num. 11:15). 

What does God do to bring Moses back from the brink?  God invites Moses to glimpse the scope of his widening influence.  Moses is instructed to gather seventy elders so he can experience firsthand how his spirit lives in them.  “And I’ll take some of the spirit that is on you and I’ll set it on them” (Num. 11:17).  When he realizes how his spirit is emanating, a more spacious vantage point becomes available to him.  From the narrow straits comes the help of Godly expanse (Ps. 118:5). 

As ominous challenges close in on us, may we overcome despair by sharing their burdens with fellow travelers in ways that make the summer of 2018 one of deeper purpose and greater promise.

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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