Internal & External Change

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“I don’t understand why I keep making the same mistakes,” a patient of mine recently told me. He had called for a chaplain in the middle of the night because he felt overwhelmed by remorse. “I have been hospitalized five times now. I’ve lost my girlfriend, my friends, my law practice, all because of drinking… I really want to change, but somehow I just keep doing the same old things over and over again.”

Change is hard.AJWS logo 

We are in the middle of reading the Book of Numbers, which is about the Israelites’ struggle to leave slavery and abandon old behaviors. The Book of Numbers could be affectionately called the Book of Kvetch, as it is filled with complaining–the people remember slavery in Egypt fondly and regret their decision to move toward liberation.

Most of this complaining is really a way of expressing the same heart-wrenching sentiment as my patient expressed–making fundamental life changes, even if they are life-saving ones like leaving slavery or quitting drinking, is extremely difficult. Even when we intellectually know we need to discard harmful addictions, behaviors, or relationships, leaving behind old ways of being in the world is at best an ambiguous experience.

From Slavery to Freedom

In this week’s portion the people complain bitterly. “If only we had meat to eat,” they wail. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all, nothing but this Manna to look forward to (Numbers 11:5-6)!”

It is hard to understand why the people remember slavery and oppression so warmly. Jewish sages question whether the Egyptian taskmasters really gave the Israelites fish for free and posit that the freedom that they are recalling in Egypt was actually a freedom from morality and obligation (Midrash Sifrei 11:6).

As slaves, the people did not have to make decisions–they did not even have to choose what to eat–and they were free from any responsibility. In the desert the people begin to mature and make choices for themselves, but still yearn for the deceptive “freedom” of slavery. In other words, the people had left slavery but not psychological bondage–they were still thinking like slaves as opposed to thinking like free people.

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Rabbi Elliot Kukla is a rabbi at the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.

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