B’halotecha: Self-doubt and doubting God

B’halotecha: Self-doubt and doubting God

In this week’s Torah reading, we once again hear the people complain, this time that they do not have any meat to eat. They remember the great variety of food in Egypt, the cucumbers, melons, leeks, and onions, and they grumble about their current diet of bland manna. Moses, upon hearing the people complain yet again, lets his own frustration and despair pour out in the following response to God:

“Why have you dealt ill with Your servant, what have I done that has not pleased you so that you have laid the burden of all this people upon me. Did I not conceive this people? Did I not bear them as You said to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant to the land that you promised their fathers?’ Where am I going to get meat to feed the people? I cannot carry all these people by myself for it is too much for me. If you continue to deal with me this way, please just kill me instead so that I no longer have to see any suffering.”

Moses’ passionate monologue expresses how deep his own self-doubt about himself as a leader has become. This is not the first time that Moses has voiced doubts about leading the people; however, Moses now is no longer the inexperienced shepherd but rather an experienced politician and law giver. Only a few verses later Moses exclaims, “There are 600,000 people with me and, You say, ‘I will give them enough meat for a whole month.’ Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? If all the fish of the sea could be gathered would it be sufficient for them?” Moses doubts God. Why? Doesn’t he remember the plagues God brought down on the Egyptians and God’s power at the Red Sea? Some might question how he dares doubt God’s abilities.

What interests me is the connection between Moses’ self-doubt and the subsequent doubts he raises about God’s power to provide sufficient food. Is there a connection? If so, how to we understand it? To answer this question, let’s turn to three Jewish thinkers.

Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, retells this biblical narrative in his book, Jewish Antiquities, by putting the statement of disbelief concerning God’s ability to provide sufficient meat into the mouth of an anonymous Israelite and has Moses support God’s power to, indeed, provide as much meat as required. Jospehus writes, “Moses promised them that he would procure a great quantity of meant and not only for a few days but for many days. This they were not willing to believe, and when one of them asked, ‘How can you obtain such a large quantity of meat?’ Moses said, ‘I and God will not stop working on your behalf.'” Josephus may be willing to accept the people’s doubt of God, but not Moses’ doubt. Thus, he completely removes Moses’ doubt for the story altogether!

Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, would certainly understand Moses’ doubt of God through the psychological understanding of projection; namely, Moses is employing a defense mechanism where he is unconsciously denying his attributes, thoughts, and emotions, and ascribing them to God. When Moses feels unsure of himself as a leader he projects these feelings onto God. Moses feels he can no longer support and nourish the people, and so too God’s ability to fill the people’s needs must be diminished. Just as when we are unsure of ourselves, whether if in a family setting, at work, or in community, we may project our sense of self-doubt onto those closest to us.

Martin Buber, a 20th century theologian, posited that there are two basic kinds of relationships: a) the I-It relationship and b) the I-Thou relationship. He believed that I-It relationships were functional and utilitarian in nature while I-Thou relationships were the sustaining relationships of life. Clearly, Moses and God had an I-Thou relationship. Buber might say that at this moment Moses’ I-Thou relationship is in danger of disintegrating into an I-It relationship; or perhaps, Buber would say that the fact that Moses felt close enough to God to express his deepest doubts and frustrations, illustrates the unique relationship God and Moses shared. We only share our despair with those to whom we are closest.

In thinking about this question I looked at the Hebrew root s-f-k which is used to convey doubt (safek), and satisfaction, (sipook). The fact that this word has multiple meanings, which, at first seem oppositional – namely, doubt vs. satisfaction – led me to explore if these words are connected in any way. Let me suggest that our doubts often lead us to change our path and our ways which, in turn, can lead to new areas of satisfaction. What really matters is what we do with our doubt. It can lead us to either broaden or narrow our perceptions of possibilities that lay before us

Perhaps the challenge is to serve God through our doubts and with our doubts. In so doing, perhaps we can transform them and reach a renewed sense of inner satisfaction. During the 40 year journey in the desert both the people and Moses experienced doubts. At places along our own life journeys we also experience doubt. We question who we are and where we are going. Moses’ self-doubt led to a new kind of leadership. He broadened his circle and included 70 elders from the community. Moses even expresses a wish that such direct communion with God would be even more inclusive when he declares, “Would to God that all the Lord’s peoples were prophet” after Eldad’s and Medad’s prophecy.

Let us look at our moments of self-doubt as gifts through which we struggle to define ourselves and our relationships that can lead to new scenarios that can provide us with satisfaction that we could never before have envisioned.