Here's one of the few facts I remember from my high school physics class: Because the surface of the earth is curved, the farthest distance a person can see is about four or five miles. Everything beyond that, even with the best telescope, is obscured from view.
Four to five miles! For some people (not me) that's a short, early morning run. Our vision is so limited! Our perspective is so circumscribed. So much lies beyond our horizons at any given moment.
The same is true in our daily lives. So often we become accustomed repeated patterns and habits of mind that help us tread water, but move us no further. We tacitly accept the idea of inexorable fate — it's our lot to struggle, we can't change it. The weight of the present prevents us from imagining alternative futures. We lose sight of alternatives — of a different world beyond our present circumstances — a world just around the corner, beyond the horizon.
Moses appears to fall victim to the same trap in this week's Torah reading, Parashat B'haalot'cha.
No more than a few days journey from Mount Sinai, the Israelites take to "complaining bitterly" before God (Numbers 11:1). What is their grievance? Food, of course. (These are our ancestors, after all.)
The Israelites kvetch, "If only we had meat to eat!. . . . There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!" (11:4-6).
Exasperated, Moses cries out to God, "Kill me rather, I beg you, and let me see no more of my wretchedness" (11:14).
But God accepts the people's challenge, and then some: "The Eternal will give you meat and you shall eat. You shall eat not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils . . . " (11:18-20).
But Moses asks, "Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?" (11:21).
Our ancestors disagreed about this question and what it said about Moses' state of mind.
According to Rabbi Akiva, Moses was despondent. His vision was constrained. He couldn't imagine the possibility that God might in fact be capable of providing sufficient food for the people or that such abundance might already be present all around them (on the latter possibility see Nachmanides on Numbers 11:22). Moses, like many of us, had no sense of imagination, of whimsy, of hope. For him, there was no alternate future beyond the present.
Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar saw things differently. Moses wasn't without hope. He understood the truth that possibilities could exist beyond his immediate frame of reference. Rather, he feared how the Israelites would respond if God made the impossible possible. Would placating the insatiable masses be a good thing? Wouldn't they want more? Moses' question was, thus, merely rhetorical (Tosefta, Sotah 6:7, Lieberman).
Jewish commentators have generally come down on one side of this debate or on the other. But, to my mind, there is merit in both views, to the extent that they represent two ways of seeing the world.
So often we find ourselves like Rabbi Akiva's Moses, despondent, unable to visualize realities beyond the present. There are times though, when we are like Rabbi Shimon's Moses, we are able — perhaps because of imagination or faith or simply hope — to see realities of abundance beyond our horizon.
So often we feel we are journeying in the wilderness, our vision of the future constrained by the bleak present. At these times, it's helpful to remember just how limited our vision really is: only four or five miles! There is indeed potential for hope, for joy, and for radical transformation in our lives, if only we muster the strength to look beyond our narrow horizon.
Rabbi Joseph A. Skloot is assistant rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation and a doctoral candidate in History at Columbia University. He is chair of the CCAR's Worship and Practice committee.
From an evolutionary perspective, fear makes a lot of sense. If you're not at least a little scared that a saber-tooth tiger might eat you, you're probably not going to survive long enough to pass on your genes. Aggression, too, is pretty obvious - we want to defend our territory and our precious resources from other people who might take them from us.
So negative emotions, which trigger the "fight or flight" response, are easy to understand. A harder question is why we have positive emotions. What's the role of happiness or play or joy?
According to psychologist Barbara L. Fredrickson, unlike fight or flight, a positive outlook leads us to "broaden and build." As she says: "[B]roadening an individual's momentary thought-action repertoire - whether through play, exploration or similar activities - positive emotions promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds, which in turn build that individual's personal resources. . . . Importantly, these resources function as reserves that can be drawn on later to improve the odds of successful coping and survival."1
Positive emotions, in other words, drive us forward. They help us envision new solutions, to connect with others, and to allow us to move forward, even as we face difficulty after difficulty after difficulty. Indeed, while "positive thinking" won't often help us address our biggest problems, a positive affect can help us expand our horizons.
Rabbi Skloot reminds us that in this week's portion, the Israelites are under stress - they are hungry, they are scared, and they are tired. They are "complaining bitterly" to God (Numbers 11:1). But as Rabbi Skloot tells us, "So often we find ourselves . . . despondent, unable to visualize realities beyond the present." But "[t]here are times . . . when we are able - perhaps because of imagination, or faith or simply hope - to see realities of abundance beyond our horizon."
Fear can paralyze us. But as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield once taught, "Love makes you brave." Expanding our horizons, connecting with others, finding joy and hope and love - these are the tools we need to help us overcome the challenges we all face.
Barbara L. Fredrickson, "The Broaden-and-Build Theory of Positive Emotions," Philosophical Transactions B, (London: The Royal Society, Sept. 4, 2004) pp. 1367-1378
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman is the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, offering people a worldview that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually uplifting. Sinai and Synapses is incubated at Clal — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868 Haftarah, Zechariah 2:14−4:7;
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,259−1,261; Revised Edition, pp. 974−976