Life for Rachel was not going so well, she was criticized at work, her family life was not too pleasant either, she felt overwhelmed by her surroundings and situation. In addition to this, Rachel, who was now in her mid thirties, was having a look at her life and feeling a lack of accomplishment which made her feel even worse. Rachel became miserable and depressed about her situation, with little hope that things could change.
Some people would tell Rachel to just get a grip on things and see all the good things that she has or has achieved (this type of comment is not always the best way to keep friends or achieve your goal of helping, as a non empathic comment is probably going to achieve the opposite of what you want!). Others might be more sympathetic and lend an ear to her problems but ultimately this also might not help as her experience of the situation will continue to cause her feeling low. Still others might think that directing her to therapy will hopefully help her cope with her issues.
As the results from studies show (http://www.journalslibrary.nihr.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/117663/FullReport-hta18310.pdf ) that although traditional therapy does help many times, there is still a significant portion of their client base who are not helped. For a therapist an obstacle to reaching the goal of climbing out of the depression that Rachel finds herself, will be her belief (which at that time is based on pretty good evidence) that whatever she does, things are going to be bad. She might feel that if she cannot change the situation then what is the point in trying? This type of attitude is not so uncommon and friends or therapists will have a hard time to help such a person.
This is where Jewish thought and history can be helpful. In last week’s Torah portion of Bamidbar the Torah described how the Jews were in the desert and it finished by starting to describe the count of the tribe of Levi. This week’s Torah portion of Nasso, starts by finishing the count of the tribe of Levi. This is not a story for the past but since the Torah is something relevant at all times[i] for all people, there is a lesson to be learnt from this counting.
Before we can understand what lesson is to be learnt from the counting of the Levites, one first has to ask, why did the Jews have to remain in the desert for 40 years? The answer is seemingly that they sinned by believing the spies which Moses sent to spy out the land of Israel and who brought back a bad report about the land. The Jews were therefore punished (measure for measure) that for each day the spies were in Israel, spying the land, the Jews were correspondingly not allowed to enter the land for a year[ii]. This only answers why they could not enter the land but not why they had to remain in the snake and scorpion infested desert, why could they not remain in better surroundings[iii]?
In the book Likutei Torah[iv] Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the mystical reason the Jews had to wonder in the desert with the Mishkan (travelling Temple) and its vessels was in order to negate the negative spiritual force that the desert represents. He goes on to explain that through taking away the force which conceals G-Dliness then they were able to reveal G-Dliness, which they achieved in their stay of the desert for 40 years.
Simply this was seen (in a physical way) as the Jews traveled through the desert the cloud of Glory killed the snakes etc[v] and turned the desert into a place where people could possibly dwell. A desert is unlike an inhabited area in two ways (although the Jews changed it when they wandering in it): 1) people don’t live there (but when the Jews were there it obviously was an inhabited place[vi]), 2) nothing grows in a desert (when the Jews were in the desert the well of Miriam caused grass and trees to grow.[vii])
This is also the reason that the males of thirty until fifty years old of the tribe of Levi were counted. These individuals were going to carry the Mishkan (a spiritually powerful center as mentioned above which could transform the desert) when it was transported from one place to another. The significance of the counting is reflected as when things are counted in Judaism they take on importance and don’t lose their self identity.
[An example of this is in the laws of Kosher food. If there would be a question if a non kosher product was dropped by accident into something kosher, a Rabbi would then need to be consulted as to what the law would be, as the non Kosher food might be nullified in the larger mixture of the Kosher food. This is all applicable to a regular food but a food which is sold by individual count (-davar she biminyan) is considered individually significant and important, such a food cannot become nullified or assimilated in its surrounding food, regardless of the quantity of the food in which it is mixed[viii] . ]
The counting of the Levites had the same effect and they became an important entity[ix] which could not become effected by or nullified to the negative spiritual influences of the desert. In fact the opposite happened and they turned over the desert into a place where people could dwell.
The transformation of a wilderness into a place where people can dwell and the ability we receive to achieve such a feat, through the command to count is relevant (as are all matters in Torah) to the present as it ever has been.
When a person considers their surroundings, they can sometimes see that they are found in a spiritually desolate landscape. The individual might find that the majority of people around them don’t know about spirituality or G-Dliness and don’t seem to care about other people or doing the right thing. There are even times it is seen that an orthodox friend or acquaintance will do something wrong (or at the very least will not try their hardest to the right thing), as the verse says “there is no righteous person on the land that will not sin (or be lacking)”[x]
In such a situation a person can get depressed and overwhelmed trying to do the right thing in their lives. The individual, like the character of Rachel above, can feel like abandoning everything (heaven forbid), and want to run to easier surroundings.
The lesson of our parsha is that we should not fear but instead try to change our surroundings. The Jewish people travelled in the desert according to G-D’S command and through this they changed the desert into an inhabitable place. So too in regards to every Jew in every time and place, even if they find themselves in a spiritual desert, since they are there by divine providence (not by chance heaven forbid) with a mission to shine up the world, they can rely on the potential we have been give from above to change the place we find ourselves into a place where G-Dliness is apparent.
This would mean for Rachel through her actions she could influence the people around her to be more aware of other people’s (including her own) feelings and acting on it according to Torah true values. Changing her surroundings would also include influencing the people she interacts with to build together a better business and social community which cares about accomplishing the divine mission which has been set out in the Torah.
This is the added help which the Torah provides for people who are feeling overwhelmed or depressed that they have the assurance that things will get better if they follow the path which the Torah lays out. Society, science, psychologists and the world of business cannot promise us anything will happen in the future. The only being that kind assure of anything in the future is G-D Almighty. That does not mean that therapy is not necessary as the Torah itself commands us to use a doctor/expert clinician when we have problems which need the use of an expert. The expert is there to help give their client the tools and techniques to cope or overcome their issues and put into practice what the Torah tells us to do. The expert though without certain basic premises like the assurance which the Torah gives will most certainly run into difficulties.
The question is how do we reach the level of the tribe of Levi who we were commanded to count and through which they then received the spiritual help to change their environment?
Maimonides the famous codifier of Jewish law states[xi] that “not only the tribe of Levi but every person who gives of their spirit.... to separate and stand before G-D to serve him etc....G-D will be his portion and inheritance....just like the Levites and Kohanim”. If an individual gives of themselves to[xii] “show G-D’S straight way and his righteous laws to the people”, it is then given to such a person from above the ability and importance not to assimilate into society, but instead to make their spiritually desolate place into a dwelling place for G-D.
We don’t have to look far on a global scale for the tremendous growth of Judaism there has been in the past 60 years, as from post holocaust, Jewish communities have flourished. The growth is not really a natural outcome compared to the heart breaking situation Jewish life found itself post holocaust. Judaism should really have been swallowed up by the evolving societies around but a number of people took a stand and said that we need to spread Jewish values, instead of accepting the values of other people.
One of those people was the Lubavticher Rebbe who with his courageous vision sent out young families to faraway spiritual wildernesses to spread Judaism and Jewish values. Looking at the world today, many places have communities where there were originally just individuals. Those young families did not accept the status quo and had a tremendous affect over a period of time on their surroundings. That does not mean that everyone has to go to Thailand and open a Chabad house but it does give us the strength to know that we too can affect our surroundings. It will not necessarily happen overnight but however bleak our surroundings seem to be at present, they can be changed.
There is an additional lesson for someone like Rachel who looks at their life and thinks about the lack of things that they have achieved. Sometimes it can seem like that have not really accomplished that much, in fact their life when they plot it out, looks pretty much like a spiritual waste land. Like Rachel an individual can become despondent from these thoughts, especially when they think that they have repeated the same useless actions for a number of years and this has now become their second nature. “How” they think “am I ever going to change?”
The Torah shows us that we can change and this is reflected with the Levites being counted only after they reached the age of 30 years old. Until this point the Levites had not served in the Mishkan. Only after reaching this point in life could they then carry the Mishkan and transform the desert into an inhabitable environment (which it actually became).
This is also applicable to everyone of us, that if we would decide that from now on we will start to serve G-D by doing the right thing we will be given the power to purify ourselves from all the negative past influences and to cause G-D to dwell amongst us.[xiii] Yes the Rachel in each one of us has work to do but she needs to know that we have an assurance that life will get better if we follow in the way of the Levites.
We should see the fulfillment of the verse when we will see the consequence of our work at present, that “the glory of G‑d will be revealed and all flesh shall see together....” with the coming of our righteous redeemer.
[i] Tanya Chapter 17
[ii] Shelach 14,34
[iii] Ekev 8,15
[iv] Nasso beginning
[v] Sifrei behalosecha 10,34 and Rashi
[vi] Shabbos 6,2
[vii] Bamidbar Rabba ch.19,26
[viii] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 10,1
[ix] Shelah Chelek Torah She Bichsav shalosh machanos (347,a)
[x] Koheles 7,20
[xi] End of the laws of shmitah and yovel
[xii] End of the laws of shmitah and yovel halacha 12