Two views of adversity

by | Jun 19, 2015 | Torah Thought

“…the big and fearful wilderness of fiery snake and scorpion and thirst, where there isn’t any water…” (Deuteronomy 8: 15)

“I remember the loving-kindness of your youth, the love of your honeymoon times, when you followed Me in the Wilderness, in a land unsown…” ( Jeremiah 2: 2)

One of the joys of serving as a rabbi is the opportunity to be with families and help them as they evaluate and reevaluate their lives. Upon mature reflection, people will sometimes hear the whisper of grace in what they had once thought was their earlier time of troubles. Sitting in their ample and well-appointed homes, they remember nostalgically the first garden apartment, before Botox, before the children, before the two-zone central air conditioning. How did they get by, with so much month at the end of their money? Back then, it was a struggle. But what they remember now is the intimacy and excitement of the first laps around life’s racecourse.

The converse is also true, of course: people can sometimes identify what began to get them off track, when they had thought at the time that their path was completely smooth.

In the first case, a new depth of gratitude to God, the source of all blessing, can be the result, and in the second case, repentance and all the good that follows from it. Judaism teaches us that God fosters even “ninth-inning rallies.”

What makes us Jews, in part, is that we identify with a core story, retell it and apply its lessons to our lives. The center of that story is set in the time period from our slavery in Egypt to our entry into the Promised Land of Israel (Canaan). The mid-point of that, in turn, is our generational sojourn in the Wilderness of Sinai. What was that time like? Was it bad, or good, or both? Does it depend where we are when we are remembering it?

In the weekly Torah portions to which we turn at this time of year (Numbers chapters 12 through 25), the narrative is filled with condemnation of Israel’s faithlessness. We doubted God’s ability to sustain us. We rebelled against the austerity of our first time of freedom and fantasized about the abundance and variety of our table in Egypt. We chose to heed the wrong advice from the Ten Scouts, rather than the right advice from Joshua and Caleb, thereby condemning ourselves to a generation-long probation in Sinai rather than an immediate return to the land of the Ancestors. Many of us followed the demagogue Korach and “Dathan the Discontented” rather than absorb the painful truths that Moses was teaching. We worshiped one idol after another, including the orgiastic fertility cult of the Moabites.

On the other hand, centuries later, the prophet Jeremiah eulogized that time as when Israel’s love for God was so great that we followed God into the wilderness, leaving civilization behind. Jeremiah doubtless knew the traditions of Deuteronomy. But he also knew that his own generation’s failings made those of the ancestors look good by comparison.

So which was it? Were they good or bad?

It was both. Reality is messy. Adversity challenges us in so many ways. We have to wrestle the demons of self-delusion, of mutual recrimination and of collective despair. Sometimes we fail. But sometimes, adversity schools and matures us, allowing the precious ore of character to be refined as the slag is burnt off.

The Wilderness Generation was in part a failure, in part a success. It failed to escape from its inner brokenness. The slave left Egypt, but Egypt remained in the slave. On the other hand, that generation succeeded in raising the first Zionist pioneers.

And so is it, quite often, in our lives. Looking back on earlier periods, we find that there is more than one way to connect the dots.

We are the children of the Children of Israel. We cherish the Torah so that we can learn from our history.

—Rabbi Michael Panitz, Temple Israel