By Rabbi Betsy Forester
We are now one week into the month of Tammuz, a month mystically known for its connections both to strong emotion and to insight. Since the year of the destruction of the 2nd Temple, we now find ourselves in the middle of the first phase of internal reflection leading up to the High Holy Days. At this phase, from the first of Tammuz through the 17th, we peer into the breach of our lives and how we are living them, looking for fissures--attitudes, habits, and character flaws that lead to brokenness, suffering, and behavior that misses the mark toward which we aspire. We do so in order to help ourselves flourish in the goodness our hearts know is possible.
This week’s Torah portion,Chukkat-Balak, portrays our biblical ancestors weary of their wilderness journey and complaining against God and Moses. In response, God sends poisonous snakes to bite and poison them, killing many. Fortunately, God orders a fix, in the form of a mounted copper serpent Moses creates, which reverses the effects of snake venom just by gazing upon it. The Zohar explains the copper serpent’s healing powers: When the people look at it, they are reminded of why they deserved to be punished. Just as the snake in the Garden of Eden used words to cause sin, so, too, the Israelites’ verbal complaining caused a rupture in the Israelites’ relationship with God.
Being reminded of the source of our ruptured relationships with God and with others can be helpful at any time of year. At this time of year especially, those reminders help us to prepare our hearts for the repentance and atonement we will undertake more earnestly in the months ahead.
Here in Dane County, organized, in-person life has begun to resume, although we remain subject to the course of Covid-19. Yet many of us are meeting re-opening with some trepidation. As much as we have yearned to see people from the neck down, it feels a bit frightening to emerge from the relative safety of our homes, especially when we don’t know how the virus will behave in the days, weeks, and months ahead.
The Hebrew word for “fear” is related by its root letters to the word for “insight,” or “seeing.” The Gerer Rebbe (“Sfat Emet”) teaches that fear exposes tensions calling for resolution. The best response to fear is to figure out what our fear is trying to tell us. When we dig into what motivates our fear, we see what we truly care about, what we want to protect from risk or harm, what we don’t want to lose. I believe that we can learn much from the fears we have at this time and in this place, here in Dane County.
Of course, it is understandable and essential for us to be concerned about our physical wellbeing during a pandemic. But I wonder if we fear other aspects of re-entry. Do we fear losing closeness we have rekindled with family and friends? Do we fear losing the stimulation we have enjoyed through online activities, because our pre-pandemic routines did not include them? Are we afraid to lose aspects of a simpler, less public, and less material lifestyle that we have come to appreciate? Are we concerned about losing the connections with nature we have nurtured in daily walks, and taking time to notice the changes as Winter surrendered to Spring, and Summer burst forth? This is a good time for us to contemplate life-giving aspects of our lives we are afraid to let slip away, now that we have rediscovered them.
We can paint the canvas of our lives with Divine goodness by paying attention to how we live our lives. Understanding our fears is one way we can gain insight into the changes we need to make. Here, perhaps, is a helpful image to keep in mind, from the Berliner Rebbe (“the Netziv”), concerning tzitzit. The Berliner Rebbe compares the blue thread of the tzitzit to God--blue symbolizing Heaven--and the white threads of the other tzitzit to the embodied realities of our lives. As you may know, the blue thread is to be wound around the white threads. He suggests that we take that same idea into our lives and strive to unite our inner wholeness, symbolized by the blue thread, with the realities of our day-to-day lives, symbolized by the white threads.
This week is the perfect week to wonder what we can discover in ourselves that will help us to live more attuned, soulful lives in the months and years ahead.
Rabbi Betsy Forester joined Beth Israel Center as their spiritual leader in 2018. She is a master teacher and religious leader skilled at helping people build meaningful lives through transformative Jewish experiences rich in authenticity, depth, empowerment, intellectual rigor, sacredness, and joy.