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Rabbi Wes Kalmar's Sermon - Parshat Behaalosecha - 5780 sivan 20

Sermon Behaalosecha 5780: “COVID-19 and Moshe Throws a Fit”, Or “Why It’s Been 13 Weeks of Lockdown and I Feel Worse Than Ever”


Moshe throws a fit in this week’s parsha – he has had it.  The people complain about the Mann – they want real food – like they had in Egypt.  And Moshe has a breakdown.  The people are complaining and he can’t take it any more – he says:


“Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? . . . I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Numbers 11: 11-15)


Why is Moshe having such a hard time now?  He’s heard it before?  When they left Egypt, they complained about the Manna, then they complained about the Egyptians chasing after them, then they complained about the water.  He has had to face many complaints already – and usually leaders when they face complaints again and again – they develop a tougher skin each time – and they get better at dealing with the problems.  In this parsha he has a breakdown.  In the upcoming parshiot – he has a hard time – he seems to be passive in the face of the spies, at other times he seems to be angry and bitter.  Why does Moshe lose it here?


Rabbi Sacks quotes Professor Ronald Heifetz, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard.     who says that there are two types of challenges. Technical challenges and adaptive challenges.  Technical challenges are when we have a problem that needs a specific response.  You get sick – you go to the doctor, you take medicine, you eat chicken soup, you go to bed.  Adaptive challenges are challenges that require us to do something out of our comfort zone.  They require us to change our regular life patterns.  Maybe the doctor tells us I can give you a pill – but that alone is not enough - you need to completely change our diet for the rest of our lives or  you need to get more sleep every night or you need to reduce stress form your life.  It is a change which is much more fundamental – it requires us to change how we live. 


Moshe Rabbeinu knew what to do when there were technical challenges – How to deal with Paroh – incline staff -  send plagues.  Egyptian army is coming – split sea.   No food – bring Manna.  No water – hit rock. Moshe does something with God’s help.


But now that the initial period of the journey has been completed things are changing.  The Jewish people left Epypt.  They got the Torah.  And Moshe is now expected to deal in an adaptive way to their problems.  He needs to help them to change their behavior. To follow the Torah and to accept it.  And despite all the miracles and getting the Torah he sees the people haven’t changed – they are not changing their behavior.  And it is so frustrating.  What is he supposed to do about it?  How can he change his approach to get the people to change? 


So that’s where we find ourselves – we have a problem with no obvious solution.


We need to stay at home indefinitely and not go meet anyone or touch anything.  And then when you finally get used to that – they tell you can go back to work, or to the doctor, or to get a haircut – or to shul -  but you have to do it with a mask, and with social distance.  It is a change which requires us to adapt the way we think, not just act.  And it’s really hard.   We finally get used to one big change in our lives and now we have to make another one – not back to our old normal but to a new normal.


We feel like we can’t plan – will there be camp, what about vacations, school next year? Our jobs? The economy?  What can we do? What can we not do?  Going out? Getting together? Getting a haircut?  We have all these questions that we cannot solve – so we turn to poor ways to deal with the problem – first denial, then anger, then blame. 


What to do about it?  I don’t know.    Maybe just knowing why helps us to deal with it.  Knowing that it is a challenge – it is a nisayon, a test, can help us to dig deep and to do something about it. 


Or perhaps we can draw some possible approaches.  Judaism does not believe in despair.  God gave Moshe the elders and the strength to renew his leadership approach.  And when Moshe is no longer able to present effective leadership – he turns to Yehoshua – who is told at the beginning of sefer Yehoshua - Chazak ViAmatz – be strong and courageous.  And then he is told again to be strong and courageous.  One time – it is in regards to a technical challenge – fighting a war – the second time is an adaptive challenge – be strong and courageous in helping the Jewish people.   

  We need to change the way we are thinking about this – without denial, anger and blame.    We need to adjust to our new normal – in which concrete answers are hard to come by.  May God give us the wisdom and the strength and the courage to know how to do this.


Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Kalmar
Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782