What Simone and Moses Teach Us This Week

I find Deuteronomy to be such a fascinating book from a literary perspective since it is mostly told in the voice of one character: Moses. Moses has led the Israelites to the western edge of the Jordan River, and in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land he sets out to remind them of the history, review the laws of the Torah, and inspire them to a successful future. It is bittersweet because we know that Moses will not be entering into the land with the Israelites; he is destined to die before they cross the river.

Because the book is told in his voice, it sets up an interesting examination of the Torah’s main character. Since he is retelling stories that happened earlier in the text, we can compare how he tells them versus how they were presented originally. Doing so can give us an insight into Moses’s character.

For when he tells the stories, he seems a bit angry.

When Moses retells the history of the Israelites, he is constantly telling them about the times that they failed, or betrayed God, or made life difficult for him. In this week’s portion of Ekev Moses reminds them of the story of the Golden Calf, when they instituted idol worship in response to Moses’s absence on the top of Mount Sinai. He also reminds them of other times they rebelled. Earlier, he even blames them for him being denied entry into the land, saying it was their desire for water that forced him to act rashly and strike the rock, when he was just supposed to speak to it.

Why does Moses lash out like this? When I would read this in the past, I thought Moses was being excessively harsh. He was being mean, perhaps as a way to scare them into submission so they will do the right thing moving forward, whether that is following the Torah or working together to form a better society.

But in light of events this week, I tend to read it differently. I am reading it as Moses as hurt, coming to terms with his fate and his inability to continue on in the journey. By sharing the way he does, Moses is telegraphing his feelings and emotions at the moment. He is not lashing out at the Israelites, but reaching out to them. He is projecting his mental state, and seeking a positive response from his community.

For those Olympic followers, the major news this week was Simone Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast in the world–and potentially of all time–withdrawing from competition. It was an issue of mental health she said, and that she was unable to perform and needed to step back for selfcare.

In my corner of the Internet, there was nothing but praise for her decision. Biles’s openness and her honesty was met with applause and support. I join that chorus, the ability to speak openly about mental health challenges is so necessary, and the ability to support those who need to heal from a challenge other than a physical one is so crucial. Many of us face similar challenges on our own scale (that is, not many of us are world-class gymnasts), but the need is the same. To be able to speak openly about mental and emotional challenges, and to be received with love and support, is important to our personal growth and development.

And especially now, as we have lived through a global pandemic–a year and a half of fear and anger and suffering and loss with no clear end in sight–I would imagine every one of us has been affected in some way. To be honest, the prospect of facing another High Holiday season under the shadow of Covid has meant that I am having a harder time finding the joy I usually do in this season, and I’m finding it harder to motivate to plan.

In Moses’s case, lashing out in anger at the Israelites and blaming them might not be the most effective means of expressing his inner struggle. But in choosing to read his intention and his words this way, it can highlight not only the need to tell people about our mental struggles, but how difficult it is for any of us to do so. Both Moses and Simone Biles set an example for us this week.

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I am a Rabbi, serving the Jewish community of Olympia, Washington and the surrounding area.

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