Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Chukas (Numbers 19:1-22:1)Finding a Place for Pain to Reside

One of the greatest pianists of the 20th century was Leon Fleisher, but at the peak of his career he developed a rare hand condition due to his 7-8 hours of practice each day and was no longer able to play with his right hand. “”I was desolate, my life fell apart, and this mysterious debilitating condition destroyed my relationship with my second wife, striking deep into my family.” Doctors could find neither medication nor surgical procedure to repair it. Fleisher even considered suicide. “I grew a beard, wore my hair long and in a ponytail, and I got a Vespa scooter. I felt I had no purpose anymore; I was simply floundering.” After a few anguished years, he tried three new careers. The first was being a left-handed concert pianist, the second a conductor, but it was the third career that ultimately gave him a reason to live; he began teaching and soon realized that his connection was with music, not just with playing the piano. Fast forward about two decades, through a new medical procedure, Fleisher got back control of his right hand and was able to perform again. In an interview in the New York Times, Fleisher said, ”Believe it or not I’ve had some of my most satisfying – even ecstatic – experiences since I stopped playing…enlightenments that very possibly might otherwise not have happened. Yes, my life would never have had this variety if I’d remained just a poor old ivory pusher. And now, how will I manage to continue doing all these things, once I start playing full time again? I think it’ll be almost the other way around. I think I’ll just have to fit in the playing, now, to what my life has become.”Where does one find the strength to continue when life doesn’t go as planned? The reaction of the (worn out desert wandering) Jews to an unexpected rejection sheds light on this question.After many years of bad choices, complaints, and hardship, the Jewish people were eagerly waiting to enter the Land of Israel. They needed to pass through the Edomite kingdom to do so, but the King refused them passage.Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “So says your brother, Israel, ‘You know of all the hardship that we have encountered. Our forefathers went down to Egypt, and we sojourned in Egypt for a long time. And the Egyptians mistreated us and our forefathers…He took us out of Egypt, and now we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your border. Please let us pass through your land; we will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink well water. We will walk along the king’s road and will turn neither right nor to the left until we have passed through your territory.'”                Edom replied to him, “You shall not pass through me, lest I go out towards you with the sword!”                   The children of Israel replied, “We will keep to the highway, and if we or out cattle drink your water, we will pay for it…”       But…Edom refused to allow Israel to pass through its territory; so Israel turned aside from him. (Numbers 20:14-20:21)When a nation endures the hardship of decades of wandering through the desert, one would expect a king to find it in his heart to allow them to pass through his land, especially considering that it wouldn’t cost him anything-but Edom’s king refused. How did the people react?They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Red Sea to circle the land of Edom, and the people’s spirit grew short of the road. The people spoke against G-d and against Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no food and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread.” (Numbers 21:4,5)Seriously? Haven’t they internalized that this type of reaction has never helped and always led to an unfavorable outcome? Obviously not; but what caused the people to complain, especially in a way heretofore unknown to them-i.e. they blamed not only Moses for their hardship, they also blamed G-d! Rashi (1040-1105) explains the words “and the people’s spirit grew short”as meaning they were discouraged due to the hardship of traveling. After all these years, they finally wanted to settle down in a land that would be their own. Rashi continues by informing us that whenever “short spirted” is mentioned in Scripture, the cause, which is usually specified, “is due to something intolerable; something the mind cannot bear.”The human capacity for knowledge, emotion, and sensory perception is limitless, so how can something be so great that the mind cannot bear it? Rashi, who lived centuries before Freud, answers with a psychological insight.When a person is beset by travail and his mind is not broad enough to accept that thing; he does not have a place in his heart where that pain might reside. Now, the thing causing distress is depicted as looming large, since it seems large and weighs heavily on the person.How many times have we seen two people who have endured the same loss of job, change in financial or social status, or even the loss of a loved one, yet one deals with it in a way vastly divergent to the other. Both are in pain but one manages to move on whereas the other slips into depression, substance abuse, or just simply can’t get over it. The reason is because the first one has found “a place in his heart where that pain might reside.” We need to develop the ability to broaden our heart so that we can place the pain there and move on. Don’t confuse this with being in denial, which is ignoring the reality you must face. What Rashi is talking about is putting things where they belong but not letting them get in the way of the rest of your life.The Israelites couldn’t ignore the fact that they were almost in their homeland but a heartless anti-Semite wouldn’t let them pass through. Granted, the necessity of taking a circuitous route would mean they would have to spend a lot more time on the road to reach their destination, but there was no reason to blame Moses-and G-d-for the proverbial monkey wrench that had been tossed into their plans. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), points out that “there was no real concrete cause for dissatisfaction, they had all their requirements.” They had food, clothes, shelter, and protection, but their hearts were not broad enough to “bear patiently the lengthy road for the longed-for goal.”How can one start building and flexing the emotion muscles required for a heart broad enough to find room for life’s unexpected vicissitudes? One of the most useful tools is to become a giver. When you give without expectation, you remain focused on the receiver, rather than yourself. You will be living in the moment and won’t have time to think about your own circumstance. I’ve never known a person for whom this was not effective.The next time you are feeling down because of your life choices, career, financial misfortune, relationship disaster, or even loss, the more largely you give to others, the smaller and more manageable your “short spirit” becomes. It could be as simple as a phone call to someone who needs it or as small as letting someone else take you parking space in a lot where there are more spaces; as long as your giving is bonafide, it will work.    Rashi’s insight is that you have to make a place in your heart for disappointment; it’s something that takes work. You can’t just ignore your issues and expect them to disappear, but you can do something about it, and create a bigger heart for yourself in the process.  Good Shabbos