D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
12-Step Torah Parashat Bamidbar 5781
Time Takes Time
Behaviors cultivated over many years are hard to change. In order to transform our lives, it is necessary to overcome what psychologist Dr. Jennifer Kunst calls a misconception – the belief that we need the very thing we are trying to give up. An alcoholic has to overcome the belief that he or she needs a drink and victims of physical abuse need to overcome the belief that they need their abuser.
Even when we know our behavior needs to change we tend to resist that change. As Dr. Kunst writes: the mind is like a rubber band; you can easily stretch it temporarily, but it snaps back to its resting position. We resist change. We like to believe that continuing to do what we’ve always done will keep us safe, while changing our behavior could put us in danger.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar, the first portion in the book of Numbers, the Israelites are themselves in the midst of a behavioral change. After experiencing the events at Sinai they are now transitioning to the daily routines necessary for wandering through the wilderness. In this week’s portion that means organizing into a military camp as a way to face the dangers they might come upon during their journey.
Later in the Book of Numbers the Israelites will find it more difficult to adapt to the harsh wilderness and loudly state their desire to go back to Egypt:
וְלָמָ֣ה יְ֠יָ֠ מֵבִ֨יא אֹתָ֜נוּ אֶל־הָאָ֤רֶץ הַזֹּאת֙ לִנְפֹּ֣ל בַּחֶ֔רֶב נָשֵׁ֥ינוּ וְטַפֵּ֖נוּ יִהְי֣וּ לָבַ֑ז הֲל֧וֹא ט֦וֹב לָ֖נוּ שׁ֥וּב מִצְרָֽיְמָה: וַיֹּֽאמְר֖וּ אִ֣ישׁ אֶל־אָחִ֑יו נִתְּנָ֥ה רֹ֖אשׁ וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה מִצְרָֽיְמָה:
And why has the Lord brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? were it not better for us to return into Egypt? And they said one to another, Let us choose a chief, and let us return to Egypt. (Num. 14:3-4)
As the Life Recovery Bible notes: All of us wish that our recovery would involve a dramatic escape from slavery and immediate entrance into the Promised Land. We would love to leave out the wilderness experiences in between. But growth and recovery occur within the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that we come to terms with who we really are.
Even after Sinai and the receiving of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites still struggle to overcome the very thing they are trying to give up—Egypt. But that’s ok because time takes time.
I thank you for my life, body and soul
Help me realize I am beautiful and whole
I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too
I will live each day as a gift I give to you
Written by Dan Nichols, this song Asher Yatzar (He Who Has Fashioned), is a commentary on a daily prayer of the same name:
Blessed are You our God, Sovereign of the universe, who fashioned people with wisdom, and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory, that if but one of them were to be ruptured, or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You. Barukh Ata Adonai rofeh khol basar u’mafli la’asot -- Blessed are You God, who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.
Expressing thanks for the continued functioning of our bodies that allows us to awaken on any particular day, this prayer Asher Yatzar acknowledges gratefulness to God for the gift of life. The song Asher Yatzar also acknowledges God for our lives, our bodies, our souls. But it doesn’t stop there-- I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too. In other words, my body may ache, I may need to lose a few pounds, I may have a blemish somewhere, but I’m perfect the way I am.
There’s a saying in the 12 Step/recovery community; progress not perfection. Not only aren’t we perfect but perfection just isn’t the goal. Perfection is elusive but it doesn’t matter. I’m perfect the way I am and a little broken too. Perfection includes being partly broken.
In their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham write: Spirituality’s first step involves facing [one’s] self squarely, seeing one’s self as one is: mixed up, paradoxical, incomplete, and imperfect. Flawed-ness is the first fact about human beings
In this week’s Torah portion Emor, we find a somewhat different approach to perfection —at least when it comes to the priesthood. Also called Torat Kohanim, the priest’s manual, Emor describes the priestly lifestyle, one which through their various ritual obligations and restrictive way of life, sets priests apart from the rest of the Israelites. But even among the priests not everyone is created equal when it comes to those ritual obligations.
No man of your offspring throughout the ages who had a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God……no man who is blind or lame, or has a limb too short or too long. No man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, or who is hunchback or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye….. shall be qualified to offer God’s gift…….he shall not enter or come behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. (Lev. 21:16-21)
Wow! I find these verses to be a bit troubling. It’s troubling enough that one has to be born into the priesthood in order to be a priest but to then be rejected because of characteristics over which one has no control is even more troubling. And to add insult to injury, priests are required to adhere to strict rules of conduct. For instance, they cannot marry a divorcee, shave any part of their heads, cut the side-growth of their beard, or make gashes in their flesh.
Now, it’s true that even in our day there are many professions with strict rules of entry – jockeys for example can’t weigh more than 126 lbs. in order to compete in the Kentucky Derby. To be a pilot in the Air Force ROTC you have to have a standing height of 64 to 77 inches and a sitting height of 34 to 40 inches. But these are really requirements they are not defects.
In our society we frown on discriminating against those with certain blemishes or defects. In fact, we have laws that protect this type of discrimination and yet the desire and the pressure we place on achieving perfection while not established as law, is no less prevalent than it was in the days of the Kohanim. Today we hear for instance about the pressure to be thin, the pressure to have a perfect nose, the pressure to be wrinkle-free.
The rabbis like to explain away this section of the Torah by reminding us that a Kohen not only represented the people to God but God to the people. In presenting God to the people it was essential that the priest be “perfect” both spiritually and physically. But this kind of perfection just doesn’t resonate so well to our modern ears. Our modern ears hear instead how God doesn’t demand perfection from us-- how God instead demands we be the best we can be- no more no less. Truthfully, being our best is hard enough. Being our best is a daily struggle.
Progress not perfection.
Former Commissioner of Baseball Francis T. Vincent, Jr. once said: Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its rigorous truth.
Progress not perfection. In Leonard Cohen’s classic song Anthem, he clearly references this week’s Torah portion and priestly perfection in presenting an offering to God, by reminding us how our imperfections help us to become the best we can be:
Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering,
There is a crack in everything,
That’s how the light gets in.