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When He Says, “I Love You”
by Braha Bender
Have you ever heard someone say, “I love you,” and felt nothing but emptiness inside? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in ten American adults admit to suffering from depression. That statistic doesn’t account for all those who do not report the cold, numb pain. It doesn’t include teenagers and children. It also doesn’t include the other mental and emotional roadblocks that we all bump up against once in a while.
The unfortunate truth is that most of us can relate to the person who does not believe the words “I love you”. At some point in our lives we also found it hard to believe that we were loved. Maybe it was when we were teenagers. Maybe it was when we were lonely children or overwrought adults. One way or the other, there was a time when love slid off of us like water off the back of a duck – we couldn’t feel it. The words just didn’t penetrate.
We did not believe that we were loved because we did not fundamentally believe that we were worthy of being loved. And that makes all the difference.
Torah is not the DSM-IV. The DSM-IV was only written a few decades ago. Torah predicted this particular issue thousands of years ago. The prototype took place immediately post-Egypt.
When the Jewish nation left Egypt, the words “I love you” were pretty hard for them to believe, too. After all, these men, women, and children had been systematically dehumanized for generations. They were a broken people. They had watched their newborn babies being drowned and cemented into the walls of buildings. How were they supposed to trust anybody? Even G-d?
We cannot understand the psychological or even physical realities of the Jews at that time. These human beings experienced the Almighty speaking to them directly at Sinai. We are entitled to interpret their behavior through the lens of our own range of experience in order to learn and grow from it. However, we must remember that our interpretation can never mirror their reality. We cannot comprehend their reality.
All that said, a modern-day interpretation of the generation who left Egypt leaves us with powerful modern-day insights. Frankly, the way Sefer BaMidbar depicts the Jewish Peoples’ formative years as nation, they act more or less like trauma survivors.
What symptoms did their “trauma” manifest? Slight discomfort could trigger full-blown hysteria. One such incidence took place when a sudden yen for meat erupted into crying and screaming to return to Egypt:
“The children of Israel said to [Moshe and Aharon], ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by pots of meat, when we ate bread to our fill! For you have brought us out into this desert, to starve this entire congregation to death!’” (Shmos-Exodus 16:3)
Subtext? Anything but you, Moshe! Anything but You, G-d! Even Egypt was better than this!
Let’s get real for a minute. Truth? There were no “pots of meat”. They had been slaves. They had cleaned toilets, had their babies used as bricks, and had gotten whipped and beaten on a daily basis. The “return-to-Egypt” fantasy was nothing but a big, fat lie.
But that is what trauma does. Trauma can make people a little crazy. Ask any psychologist. Once a trigger gets started, even Egypt can look better than the scary terrain of the unfamiliar. Wandering through the desert? Relying on Moshe? Trusting G-d? After a few hundred years of slavery, it was a lot to handle.
Typical trauma survivors, they threw abuse at the One who loved them. They threw insults. They lied to Him and they lied to themselves. But did G-d give up on the Jewish People? No way. It was a recovery process of forty years with no blame, no shame, but also no alternative. Call it history’s first rehab session, on a national scale. Nobody was leaving. Nobody was going back to Egypt. The Jewish People were going to become functional and healthy as a nation whether they liked it or not.
And the best part is that it worked.
So how did the Jewish People recover from the trauma of Egypt? What techniques characterized the Almighty’s rehabilitation program for the former slave-nation?
Every Jew Counts
Sefer BaMidbar is also called Chumash HaPekudim, the Book of the Counting. Several times throughout the book of BaMidbar, the Almighty takes a census of the Jewish People. Why? To show the Jewish People that each and every one of them counted:
“Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel…”
Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them (Shmos-Exodus 12:37); when [many] fell because [of the sin] of the golden calf, He counted them… (ibid 32:28); when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan, the Mishkan was erected, and on the first of Iyar, He counted them. (Rashi, BaMidbar 1:1-2)
Because it wasn’t enough to take the Jewish People out of Egypt. G-d had to take Egypt out of the Jews. Their Egyptian self-image as worthless slaves had to be replaced with the self-image of a people worthy of being beloved and chosen by the Almighty Himself. For His “I love you” to mean something to them, they had to believe that they were worthy of being loved.
The lesson continues in Pirkey Avos:
Beloved is man, for he was created in the image of G-d; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d, as it is said, “For in the image of G-d He made man.” Beloved are the people Israel, for they are described as children of the Omnipresent; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to them that they are described as children of the Omnipresent, as it says, “You are children to Hashem your G-d.” (Pirkey Avos 3:18)
The Rambam (Maimonides) explains the message of the mishna. It isn’t enough that He loves us to pieces. He loves us so much that He has to let us know that He loves us to pieces! But it goes deeper than that. The onus of the relationship isn’t just on the Almighty. We must know that we are beloved. We must own that truth. We must be actively aware of who and what we are: beloved people.
Otherwise, He can love us until He is blue in the face, so to speak. It won’t make a difference in our lives. It won’t go in. We must first achieve an awareness, a self-image, that we are inherently worthy of being loved.
How does this awareness, this self-image, change us? You tell me. How would you behave differently if you knew, really knew, that G-d loves you? That you are a person who is uniquely worthy of that love? Would you make different choices? Respond differently to challenging situations? Interpret your life through different eyes?
The purpose of our lives, and indeed of the entire creation, is to develop a loving relationship with G-d. But a relationship can only take place when both parties are capable of receiving the other’s love. That was step one for the Jewish People in the desert and it is still step one today. We are not worthless Egyptian slaves. Each one of us counts. He counts us. We are loved.
And that is worth living up to.