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Subtle but not Timid

“Why do we keep doing things that aren’t good for us?” Sandy recently asked over coffee. We were talking about self-inflicted harm. You know, the weakness you can’t resist. And they’re not just about pleasure. If you’re like me, procrastinating or avoiding conflict actually adds stress to life. What makes these appetites for risk more frustrating is that they’re avoidable. 

But, are they really? They keep showing up to tempt us all the time. Sandy added, “Just because we know better, doesn’t mean we do better.”

Turns out this week’s Torah and Prophetic portions specialize in addressing self-inflicted problems. They touch on the question, Why do people undermine themselves? The Torah introduces a twelve-step program for Nazirite self-restraint. Yet Samson, the best known adherent of it, whose birth is the subject of the Prophetic passage, is one of the Bible’s most self-destructive figures. 

The takeaway lesson, therefore, has to be more subtle. It doesn’t shout for attention. It isn’t waving at us, frantically opening and closing the shudders. It happens in a single word that appears in the last verse of the Torah’s longest portion. 

The only appearance of the Hebrew word mee-daber occurs to describe Moses hearing God’s voice speaking between the cherubs atop the Ark of the Covenant (Num. 7:89). Presenting something only once is often a biblical technique for touching on it, in order to dismiss it. Here, mee-daber is presented as a non-normative mode for communication with God. 

More commonly, God visits in wisps. Quivers. Winks. These sensations provide breezy get-togethers between your soul and its Source. They’re subtle, almost by design. If they called attention to themselves, we’d overanalyze them. 

But being subtle doesn’t make them timid. They soften life’s rougher edges. Loosen the grip of knotty fixations. And lift us out from the cul de sac of despair.  

Self-defeating acts often happen after an inner-debate inside you between Objection and Inclination. Inclination wins. Self-made light can be too dim. 

Next time, if you can quietly keep a corner of your faith, instead of struggling to think about God, try to imagine yourself as a thought of God. May this pour new life and fresh firmness into that conversation. And may this remind you, especially when you’re unsure, that you’re actually worthier and capable of more. 

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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