Chukat: To Sit With Suffering

| parsha reflection |

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, meaning decree, is filled with suffering. It begins with the ritual law for purification after a person comes in contact with someone who has died, including the strange ritual involving the red heifer. Then Miriam dies. Afterwards, the Israelites suffer from thirst and their own inner turmoil as they wrestle to understand why G-d brought them out of Egypt into what seems like a frightening and bleak wilderness. They whine to Moses a lot. G-d, through Moses, brings forth water from a rock. Then Aaron dies. The people again express their suffering. This time G-d sends snakes to bite the people. The people beg Moses to ask G-d to get rid of the snakes. G-d does. And interspersed there are battles and conquests and captives. And the last verse of the portion says the Israelites marched on.

I recently attended a talk by the Zen Buddhist priest Norman Fischer. He said that we don’t like sitting with suffering. We have an aversion to our own suffering, and we have an aversion to other people’s suffering. In this portion, we see a lot of that. The Israelites are averse to their thirst and to their wandering. They feel fearful. They cry out. They are unwilling to sit with their suffering, to realize they are in a panic in which their fear is larger than the danger they face. Moses, in turn, has difficulty holding the people’s suffering. We can see this because rather than calmly speak to the rock to bring forth water as G-d instructs, Moses hits the rock twice with his stick. The suffering of the people has clearly agitated Moses, and he wants a quick fix to the people’s thirst. And how about G-d? After bringing forth the water from the rock does not prove to be the quick fix Moses and G-d desire, the Israelites continue to suffer and complain bitterly. G-d reaches a breaking point and can no longer sit with their suffering. He strikes back sending dangerous snakes. Of course, this only serves to amplify the Israelites’ fear and suffering.

But when they repent and turn towards Moses and G-d, G-d sends down a large figure of a snake that the people have to look at. It is as if G-d realizes that the Israelites need to sit with their suffering by sitting with this copper snake. Only sitting still allows them to see what is really there — a phantom. And G-d and Moses sit with them. Then the Israelites march on. Surely there will be future suffering. People the Israelites love will continue to die. But if they can sit with it, they will feel a calm that comes from seeing the truth of the way things are. And they can take the next appropriate step that arises out of the stillness.

My kavannah or intention for this week is for us to recognize the ways in which we turn away from our own suffering and from the suffering of others, even those we are closest to. May we sit this week with any suffering that might arise.