by Rabbi Gila Caine
(AJNews) – When experiencing physical, emotional, or spiritual pain we naturally tend to focus on the things or people that hurt us. This is very understandable since by noticing what is harmful or toxic for us, we might be able to evade it, perhaps even do away with it. We see this around and within us today, as we end 2021 after a full year of Covid-19 reality, when the liminal state of not-knowing-what-comes-next, is the norm.
As a reaction to misery, we are sometimes asked to “think positively”, and told that we mentally create our own reality. This suggestion is of course harmful, because the world isn’t only in our head, and our worry and pain is important and can be a great teacher if we know how to walk through and arrive at the other side.
In this week’s parasha we begin reading about the ten plagues (the same ones we commemorate during the Passover Seder) and of Moshe’s standing up to the Pharoah as they hold a dual of mind and magic over the freedom of Israel from slavery.
This story is filled with the pain of Israel crying out to be free, and of the whole land of Mitzrayim (Egypt) suffering God’s fury as Moshe brings down horror after horror. But there is something interesting about the first three plagues. It isn’t Moshe himself who physically strikes the water or land to mark the start of another disaster, rather it is his brother, Aharon, who does the actual deed. Why? The medieval commentator, Rashi, reminds us that since the earth protected Moshe when he slew the Egyptian (check out this story in Sh’mot/Exo. 2:11), he wouldn’t strike it when he was calling the lice to come up and attack. Midrash tells us that for this same reason he wouldn’t strike the Nile to call up the first two plagues, since that would mean attacking the waters that hid him as a baby.
Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (in his book Alei Shur) uses this commentary to teach us about the attitude of “Hakarat Hatov”, the spiritual stance of noticing goodness in our lives. He speaks in detail about this mitzvah and reminds us that we are required to notice the goodness we owe not just to God, but also to our fellow humans, and even to those who won’t notice our gratitude (like the earth and water). This is an inner spiritual place we need to hold, which helps us connect with all that is life-giving in this world.
To be clear, Moshe didn’t ignore what was hurting him and his people, he wasn’t ignoring the painful parts and wasn’t practicing bland “positive thinking” – if he’d done that, we would still be in Mitzrayim. But Moshe did something much more complex, he noticed the bad and battled it, and noticed the good and acted with gratitude – all at the same time.
Entering 2022, I’m quite sure we’ll have many things to battle with on a personal and communal level, but I’m positive there will also be people and events that bring Tov/goodness into our lives. By developing a practice of noticing that goodness, we create stronger connections with life and shed light on the confusion around us.
Rabbi Gila Caine.
Rabbi Gila Caine is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Jewish Congregation.