A scene from this week's Torah portion, "The Gathering of the Manna" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
A scene from this week's Torah portion, "The Gathering of the Manna" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

When a loved one is stressed — about school, wandering in the desert, etc. — just be present

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Pairings: Eve and Adam. Sarah and Abraham. Ruth and Naomi. Hillel and Shammai. Bert and Ernie. Bagels and cream cheese. Beha’alotcha and Rostain & Hibbs.

Beha’alotcha is this week’s Torah reading, and Rostain and Hibbs are Anthony L. Rostain and B. Janet Hibbs, authors of “The Stressed Years of Their Lives: Helping Your Kid Survive and Thrive During Their College Years.

My father’s young adult life, Brooklyn, early 20th century, was surely different from his father’s Vilna upbringing in the late 19th century. And I, California born and raised, had a most different mid-20th-century teen life.

Rostain and Hibbs call out the unique world of my 21st-century children and students. They have experienced 9/11, social-media bullies, the 2008 financial crisis, and one damn school or workplace or concert mass shooting after the other.

They are aware of the high cost of their education, Jewish camps, the pressure (often unnecessary) of AP classes, narrow college admissions windows, and the polarity of universalism (with political intersectionality) and particularism (is it good for the Jews?). And for the locals, they have not lived a day without human beings living on the streets, they have experienced a widening wealth inequity and, with few exceptions, they can’t imagine easily buying a home in the Bay Area. Israel used to, for a while, unite us.

Now, if you are tempted to say (and even if you are not), “Snowflakes! Ingrates! We had it much worse,” please turn to Beha’alotcha, specifically Numbers 11:4, where we read,

The *riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”

(*For a deep dive into the identity of the riffraff, go to “From Metaphysics to Midrash: Myth, History, and the Interpretation of Scripture in Lurianic Kabbalah” by Shaul Magid.)

The People of Israel were quite stressed. They began to remember a past that never was and yearn for a life they never had. But they are not our focus. Moses is, as described in verse 10:

Moses heard the people weeping, every clan apart, each person at the entrance of his tent. The LORD was very annoyed, and Moses was distressed.

Dis-stressed, indeed. Moses cries out:

“Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me — if I have found favor in your eyes — and do not let me face my own ruin.”

Yikes. Just read that aloud, in private, and feel the pain.

This is a dangerous text, Moses is speaking about suicide, and fortunately, Adonai listens.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “Every leader, perhaps every human being, at some time in their lives faces failure, defeat and the looming abyss of despair.” What is fascinating is God’s response. He does not tell Moses, ‘Cheer up; pull yourself together; you are bigger than this.’ Instead He gives him something practical to do:”

From Numbers 11:16:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me 70 of the elders of Israel … I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”

I have spent decades working with teens, and there was no greater teacher than the late Sol Gordon. He wrote, “When Living Hurts,” and — in concert with Rostain and Hibbs, and the Torah — advocates for listening over judgement, action over disdain.

All comparisons are odious, a wise woman said to me. Adonai does not just listen, but acts.

Adonai says to Moses:

“I will come down and speak with you there.”

“There,” where you are, in your pain, in your place, your makom. Adonai did not work with miracles and wonders but with the gift of presentness. Be here now.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at wolfprusan@mac.com.