Minutes of Torah
This week we begin the Book of Deuteronomy, consisting almost entirely of one extended “farewell address” of about thirty chapters, by Moses to the post-slavery generation of Israelites recounting the story of the Exodus and the subsequent wilderness journey.
The new version of events often differs considerably from the prior accounts in the Torah. One of the most egregious examples occurs in Moses’s account of the episode in which twelve spies are sent to scout the Promised Land:
First, in Numbers the idea to send the scouting party to investigate the Land is initiated by God; but, in Deuteronomy, Moses criticizes the people for their demanding advance surveillance and reassurance before moving forward.
Second, in Numbers, two of the twelve scouts, Joshua and Caleb, seek to quell the people’s subsequent panic. But in the Deuteronomic version, it is Moses who emerges as the hero who attempts to counter the growing panic among the people.
Finally, in Numbers, the consequence to Israel is that the generation of the Exodus must die in the wilderness before reaching the Land. But in Deuteronomy, Moses asserts that his people’s spiritual failure in this episode condemned him as well to perish before reaching the Promised Land (this is expressly contradicted by Torah’s explicit statement that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land because of his actions in hitting the rock and not speaking to the rock, for water to come forth at another stop on the journey).
Moses appears as an aging leader, who views the past through a lens which whitewashes his own shortcomings and projects them instead onto others. Moses’ casting blame and expressing anger might be understood as reflecting a state of denial and anger, the first two of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of processing death.
It is entirely natural that as he begins what he knows will be his final act of leadership, Moses might experience deep sadness, pain and grief. It is likewise natural that, like so many of us, he would unconsciously deny his heartbreak or deflect its pain through anger, hence his reimagining a past in which he is faultless and projecting blame onto others.
This difficulty in accepting the pain of loss is addressed in a teaching by Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov, the early-19th century Hasid. He recommends that rather than avoiding or shutting out that which is painful, we must truly face and enter into it. “Sometimes, when people don’t want to suffer a little,” Rabbi Nachman taught, “they end up suffering a lot.”
Rabbi Nachman noted that when experiencing pain, our natural human reflex is to close our eyes. This enables us to avoid distractions and see more clearly the connection between the pain and other aspects of our life. At this moment of “experiencing” the pain, we can get past our natural aversion to unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Instead, we can see more clearly the option of holding our pained heart with tender hands, rather than fleeing from unpleasant or painful thoughts and feelings. In that moment, we can tolerate that which we might otherwise consider unbearable.
And yet perhaps Moses’ succumbing to sadness and heartbreak, ultimately teaches us that denial and anger are unavoidable parts of the grieving process. There is no shortcut to acceptance of life’s losses; we must apply compassion towards ourselves when we notice the various ways we otherwise avoid experiencing the pain of life’s inevitable heartbreaks. If we can muster the courage to enter as fully as possible into grief, perhaps we can also be blessed with compassion and gentleness as we navigate the long and painful road of loss.