Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon July 12 2024

Rabbi Yair Robinson


Parashat Chukat


As wonderful as it’s been to have some time away on sabbatical, it’s nice to pop back in and be with you all tonight. And I suppose tonight is a good time to report back on what I’ve been working on and thinking about, a kind of ‘what did you do on your summer sabbatical’ report. As some of you know, I’ve been doing a lot of work on family systems and studying with the Council For Relationships, and this month I’ve been spending a lot of time on…trauma. And pain! Aren’t those fun topics? For what it’s worth I’ve also been cleaning out my basement. Not sure if that’s better or worse.

Why trauma? I’m in a class on Trauma and recovery, but honestly, even before my class, I’ve been thinking a lot about trauma. We tend to think of trauma as primarily something suffered by soldiers and first responders, or victims of crime or violence or abuse, but one of the things we as a society are learning is that many of us, perhaps a plurality of us, have suffered a trauma of some variety or another, or its sibling, toxic stress. Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of the book The Body Keeps the Score, underlines the idea that trauma is a fact of life. Which is to say, many of us have had some kind of deeply upsetting experience that has left us feeling helpless and alone, and as a result, our brains and bodies develop defense mechanisms that are meant to protect us from feeling that pain again. Which sounds like a good thing, except that avoidance of pain often prevents us from growing and developing. We remain stuck.

I’m speaking of individual experiences because, as a society, that’s how we tend to talk about such things—this person’s accident, or attack, or the like. But there is also a sense of collective trauma, societal trauma, the trauma we’ve experienced since 2020 and the global pandemic, or since 2016 with the chaos of that election, or since October 7th, when so many of our people have talked about literally still being on that day, never mind the rash of antisemitism that has followed. Add to that the growing awareness of the affect on climate change, which has been hard to miss the last several weeks, the mass trauma of systemic bigotry, and the role social media plays in amplifying the negative in every respect, and, well, we can find ourselves collectively traumatized as a society.

Okay so we’re all traumatized, so what? What are we supposed to do about it, if anything? And why should we care? What are we going to do, turn inward and navel gaze? Self medicate? Judaism, after all, is a religion about action, about deed. We don’t have time for this. Author Prentis Hemphill, in her book What it Takes To Heal, talks about speaking at a conference in California about collective trauma and healing to a group of political organizers and social activists, when one of them gets up and says, bluntly, we can’t heal our way out of fascism or climate change. Or more bluntly and dismissively, as a colleague of mine saw painted on a barn next to a large Trump banner, “EF your feelings”.

And that’s what our society wants us to do. Compartmentalize, individualize and not deal with it, failing to recognize that through experiencing the pain and through it, coming to a place of healing, we can also work to alleviate the ills that ultimately caused the toxic stress to begin with. Our tradition has much to say on the subject, including this week’s parasha. As I stated before, when we read Chukat we expect to read the Waters of Meribah, that moment when Moses, perhaps bereft from the death of his older sister Miriam, after over 40 years of leading the people, completely loses it. The people need water, and God commands Moses to speak to the rock so that water flows. But instead he yells out “come you rebels, shall I get water from this rock?” and strikes it. Water does flow, but God makes it clear that Moses’ response in anger—toward Israel especially—means that he is unable to continue to lead the people into that land flowing with milk and honey. That’s the text we expect, but just a chapter later, as we heard, there’s another story of water. This time, Israel gathers at the place God indicates that God will provide water, and the people sing. “Spring up, O well—sing to it— (18) The well which the chieftains dug,Which the nobles of the people started.”

The contrast between the people’s song and Moses’ blow to the rock couldn’t be more, well, striking. Is it too much to say that Moses’ traumas of enslavement and journey, of rebellion and warfare, have all taken their toll, and he has never processed them? Perhaps: diagnosing and labeling biblical characters is a dodgy exercise. But we might recognize in Moses’ actions a certain kind of pent-up frustration, an explosion of pain compartmentalized and put aside, perhaps even avoided, only to come out as an uncontrollable eruption. Meanwhile Israel, led through their various traumas, has learned as a people to respond differently to the crisis of the moment. They cannot force the well, or God, from providing water, but they can put themselves in a different kind of posture of gratitude and humility to receive the water. Gone is the anxiousness of previous generations, the longing for a place of oppression because of familiarity. Here are a people that has moved through its pain and healed, and as such is able to take different kinds of action. Moses can’t see how the people have changed; but at least in this moment, we have a healing response.

So it is with us. So much is beyond our control as individuals, and we cannot imagine the future or what it will bring, just as no one could imagine all that we’ve been through in the last four years, or the last eight. But healing won’t come if we compartmentalize the pain and retreat into our defenses. Instead, it is only through moving through that pain, acknowledging the truths of it, and sustaining one another—through individual support, through collective ritual, and yes, through action—that we can come to some healing and affect change.

Among the most popular songs in modern Israel is Naomi Shemer’s “Al Kol Eleh”, which begins, “Al hadvash ve-al ha-oketz, al ha-mar ve-hamatok,’ ‘For the honey and the sting, for the bitter and the sweet.” We must acknowledge the bitter and the sting that we have experienced, individually and collectively. Only then can we experience the sweet and the honey. The people have moved from anxiety to song; so may we be able to do so as well as we respond to all the need around us. And may this be true. Amen.