On the evening of Kol Nidrei, in 2005, I was in my final year of rabbinic school in Detroit, serving as a rabbinic student. That night, the theme for my sermon was “Life begins after the tear.” I specifically mentioned the ritual of k’riah – making a tear in one’s garment as an expression of grief just prior to attending a funeral service. And after the tearing, after painful and emotional acknowledgment, it is possible for a person to demonstrate resilience, to begin the challenging process of embracing life once again, of living, even in the shadow of loss.
While this sermon referred specifically to death, there are other moments in which we feel deeply torn – the loss of a job, a conflict with a family member or a colleague, a disappointing outcome, a moment in which we lose hope. Such circumstances require us to begin after the tear too, to acknowledge our pain and frustration, to pick ourselves up, to continue living, to demonstrate resilience, even if we feel that life’s experiences have left us feeling diminished.
Moses was no stranger to disappointment. After leading the Israelites through the wilderness and being God’s emissary to the people for forty years, Moses encounters a series of challenges as the Israelites grumble repeatedly in the wilderness. This time, they find themselves in a location without food and water and complain to Moses and Aaron that they would be better off if they returned to Egypt. God tells Moses to get water for the Israelites by speaking to a rock. In a show of anger and frustration, Moses smashes the rock twice with his staff and copious water issues forth.
While much has been written about the fabulous and seemingly unbelievable elements of this story, this small episode remains an integral part of our Torah narrative and we must try to learn from it. The consequence is dire for Moses – he will never lead the Israelites into the Promised Land; he will only see the land from afar. No matter how much he resisted the initial call from God at the burning bush, Moses has become inexorably linked to the Israelites. He has instructed them, challenged them, and even defended them. And now, he will never achieve his most cherished goal – he will never taste the sweetness of the land flowing with milk and honey.
But does Moses give up? Does he bury his head in shame? Does he cry out at the seeming injustice of God’s fateful pronouncement? We can only imagine the depth of emotion that Moses feels – his disappointment, his despair, and his heart breaking with sadness. He has endured a tear – an indelible mark in the fabric of his life, but he chooses to go on.
He chooses to be resilient even when confronted with pain and injustice, even when life threatens to become devoid of meaning.
But within a few verses, Moses returns to leadership. He sends messengers to Edom and says, “You know all the hardships that have befallen us.” While his statement can be seen to evoke sympathy, it can also be read as Moses’ acknowledgment. He still has a duty, a responsibility, an obligation. Even denied his ultimate wish, he needs to continue leading and continue living. Like Moses, who demonstrated that resilience is possible even after a tear, we too can see such moments, however painful, as opportunities to begin again and to continue living.