Attracted by a 30% off sale sign, I walked into a small sporting goods store. On a stack of T-shirts was one that said, “Life is good.” Luckily, my size was on top. I took it as an omen and I bought it quickly. This will be a reminder to stay positive, I thought. Sometimes life is not so good.
There are times when life seems unfair. Some of us suffer disease. Others are casualties of injustice. When the world is harsh we might feel wronged. Along with the temporal pain we may also feel diminished as a person, rejected by God and angry at the world. How we manage our reaction is the key. Will I be a victim or a survivor? We might not have chosen to be harmed but we can chose how we respond.
Moses, the great leader, nearly fell into a state of victimhood. God responded with dogmatism and intemperance to Moses’ disobedience at the rock of Meribah. Moses was instructed to speak to the rock to produce water. Instead, Moses raised his voice and his arm, striking the rock to cause water to flow. God refused to allow Moses to enter the Promised Land. In his last days, Moses stood before all the people, reflected on his life, and blamed the Israelites for his punishment. Deut. 4:21.
Moses had been a great and inspired leader taking his people from bondage in Egypt. His accomplishments surpassed rescuing the Israelites. He brought the law down from Sinai, provided governance and delivered military leadership for 40 years. How unfair it seems that one moment of pique would bring an end to the fulfillment of Moses’ journey. By virtue of the harsh decree on Moses, Torah invites us to question how we can feel hopeful and secure when the universe or God can seem to be so unjust.
One reaction to life’s brutal episodes is self-pity. Self-pity is part of the grieving process. With adversity may come feelings of helplessness, shame, pessimism or despair. Moses may have been undergoing such an episode of defeatism and self-indulgence. No one needs permission to feel badly about his or her predicament.
We typically have a hard time accepting what we cannot control. We might expect life to be fair and in truth life is neither fair nor unfair. Life just happens. When the unexpected struggle occurs, our sense of security and hopefulness is tested. In such times it is easier to blame and be a victim. Blaming is a distraction. Victimhood is insulation.
When self-pity is untamed it morphs into victimhood. Victimhood seems quite natural in such circumstances and manifests in various ways. The victim understands their fate as resulting from the harmful action of others. Victimhood impedes us from taking on personal responsibility for our role in unfortunate circumstances.
There is psychological and even theological value in self-pity as long as we limit the flow of energy to desist from feelings of victimization. With victimhood we create more suffering over our suffering.
We can anticipate that taking on the role of victim inhibits us from realizing our full human potential. As author Paulo Coelho wrote: “You can either be a victim of the world or an adventurer in search of treasure. It all depends on how you view your life.”
Moses was 120 when he pointed fingers at his stiff-necked followers. While his journey was not completed, Moses’ path was nearly at an end. His outburst of blame was an ungracious attempt at reconciliation with his fate. But he remained a leader and not a victim.
For Moses’ this is a moment of self-pity but not of diminishment or powerlessness. Even as his remaining days dwindled, Moses delivers long and powerful messages to shape the future and guide the people. His selfless and caring nature bursts forth in speeches of chiding and compassion, law giving and wisdom.
There is a counter balance to victimhood. Take ownership of your actions when you can. Seek the lesson in life’s challenges great and small. Uncover the teaching moments and share your wisdom. And learn a lesson from Moses. With your perfect imperfections in mind, broaden your view to see the range of goodness that you bring to this world.
Rabbi Evan Krame