William Hamilton

Moon landings and muscle memory

This is a weekend of noteworthy anniversaries. 50 years ago a human being first walked on the Moon.  2,500 years ago the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the conquering Babylonians. 1,000 years earlier an angered Moses smashed the Tablets of the Ten Commandments in response to the Golden Calf sin.

Jewish tradition marks these calamities with a Fast Day, observed this Sunday, known by its Hebrew date, the 17th of Tammuz.  It signals the arrival of a three week period of descent to our calendar’s saddest day, the 9th of Av when Jerusalem’s Temple was destroyed.

The tendency to revisit our low points and to own our faults has a significant benefit.  The biblical norm is to ascribe successes to God and setbacks to ourselves. Why?  Not merely to inculcate humility and appreciation for God’s blessings.  As importantly, when we internalize our struggles with shortcomings, something profound can be borne.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes about the difference between battles against implacable external forces ‘out there’, the norm in classical world, and internal battles inside ourselves.  Struggles against cold external forces in antiquity gave rise to the notion of tragedy, which is alien to Judaism. Today such struggles take the forms of economic forces, unconscious drives and hereditary traits.  When we struggle not with external ‘out there’ adversaries, but rather with internal drives ‘in here’ we grow stronger.  When we successfully wage the battle against destructive and dysfunctional drives inside us, then we become capable of facing any external threat the world throws at us.

The Torah’s most flagrant desecration at the conclusion of this week’s portion combines licentiousness and idolatry (Num. 25:1-9).  It is a national low point.  The leader Pinhas’ zeal, in publicly impaling the defiling transgressors, is rewarded.  The act is executed ‘neged ha’shamesh’ literally ‘before the sun’, or ‘through witnesses’ (comment of Lekach Tov).

Perhaps sunlight is also a better disinfectant when we’re looking within our own unhealthy internal drives.

Alas, when we externalize our faults by pointing fingers of blame for failures we weaken the muscle memory of fortitude.  The costs include excessive victimhood, increasing contempt, and a weakening of our own immune system.

May we internalize the benefits of taking responsibility for our faults.  In so doing, may the fortitude of our inner lives help us elevate toward ideals that reach beyond the Sun and the Moon.

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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