Overcoming Difficult Times: a Lesson Learned from the Torah

            January 2014    
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Confronting My Own "Snakes"

By Walter D. Levy

Lessons from the Parashah Chukat

Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and jelly. "Another peanut butter and jelly sandwich," I moaned.

Those were tough times. Difficult times. My parents had recently divorced. We had little money. We were struggling.

At this time, I would complain about having to watch my younger brother, about not being able to play with my friends, and about not having enough money to go bowling or to the movies.

In addition to my home problems, my grades in junior-high school were suffering. I was getting into trouble. My teachers were calling the house. I was becoming an angry, rebellious young man.

After the divorce, my mother became more and more stressed out. Sometimes, circumstances would overwhelm her. It was at times like these that she'd throw up her hands and say, "Can't you see I'm doing the best I can!"

As the days and weeks passed, I was becoming more and more distant, disorganized and disenchanted.

It was then, my mother decided that I needed to have a talk with our rabbi. I had known the rabbi since I had attended cheder.

When I sat down with the rabbi, we talked about a variety of topics: my home-life, school, my friends, and the temple (he noted that he hadn't seen me recently).

As I think back, I can't remember everything we talked about nearly sixty years ago, but I do recall that the rabbi discussed the parashah Chukat.

In his commentary, the rabbi told me that the Israelites, especially the younger generation, had been constantly complaining about G-d. and about Moses' lack of leadership. The rabbi mentioned that the Jews were becoming more and more disenchanted as they continued to wander through the Wilderness (They were, in fact, only one year away from reaching The Promised Land). They moaned, "Why do you take us out of Egypt to die in the desert?" If it wasn't the lack of water they grumbled about, it was the food. They were "disgusted" that they had to eat manna over and over again.

Furthermore, I remember the rabbi mentioning how G-d had caused fiery, venomous snakes to bite and kill "the complainers". Many died. These complainers subsequently pleaded with Moshe to approach G-d to take away the serpents. Moses subsequently built, with G-d's help, the image of a copper snake (nachash nechoshet) that he attached high atop a pole. Moses then said that when those who were bitten looked upon the copper snake they would be cured. The rabbi continued by saying that it wasn't so much the sight of the copper snake that had cured the complainers, it was that they had begun to realize - as they looked at the copper snake - that the snakes were merely instruments; it wasn't the snakes who were killing them but their own sinful behavior. The rabbi concluded by saying that as the Israelites continued to look up at that copper snake and toward the heavens above, they began to realize that it had been their lack of faith in G-d and His ability to protect and deliver them that was the root-cause of their problem.

Well, the same had been true with me. After my talk with the rebbe, I thought how I, like the Israelites in the Wilderness, had lost my way; how I had lost faith in G-d.to lead me on the right path. I needed to be patient and know that G-d is there for me. I needed to reconnect with the merciful and loving G-d. I also needed to follow His Commandments and pray for His kindness.

As I thought about it years later, I likened the snakes in the parashah Chukat to Freudian id-like impulses. These wayward distractions had captured the Israelites' attention and diverted their minds. The Jews of that time had become impatient, restless, bitter and ungrateful; they had forgotten all that G-d had done for them. Instead of thanking G-d for feeding and protecting them, the Israelites - like immature children -had set about to complaining. No wonder G-d became frustrated with them. Had they not remembered all the miracles He had brought forth on their behalf.

Well, I too had been bitten by my owns "snakes". However, I quickly realized that I must face up to reality and confront my own misdeeds, misgivings, and doubts and, with G-d's help, banish those thoughts forever. At the same time, I reaffirmed my complete faith in The Almighty.

Yes, I would, with the rabbi's and G-d's help, overcome that troublesome period during my adolescence. I had, at that time, temporarily lost my way, but I was now back on track.

Finally, I realized that as I moved through life there will always be "snakes" on the road. They will try to tempt me. They will challenge me. They will question my faith. But I - like the message of Chukat, - will remain strong, I have put my trust in G-d.

Oh, as for those many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I have to chuckle now when I think about them. I will say that nowadays I rarely eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The only ones I make now are for my grandchildren.


from the January 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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