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Parashat Mattot

July 21, 2011

By Rabbi Katy Z. Allen

Finding Our Way Out of Helplessness

Peep! Peep! Peep! The brood of baby chicks – domesticated or wild I do not know – was scurrying and moving en mass, with loose chicks running off in every direction, peeping. They kept scurrying into the street, a busy street, and it was dark out. Desperately I tried to shoo the little guys onto the sidewalk. But they kept constantly moving back and forth and this way and that way, all the time peeping, peeping, peeping. And no mother in sight. I was terribly distressed. I didn’t want them to get run over. But I didn’t know what to do! Finally, seeing the unending nature of trying to keep them off the street, I left the chicks behind and went inside.

In this week’s parashah, God tells Moses, “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites” (Num. 31:1). So the Israelites – a thousand from each tribe – go up and kill the Midianites – but just the men. They burn the Midianites’ towns, take the women and children captive, and scoop up all their belongings as booty. Moses is not at all happy. In fact, he is angry. He tells the people to kill all the boys and all the women who have known men. Afterward – though the text never tells us that the Israelites actually do the killing – the booty gets divided up and distributed.

Once inside, I quickly realized that the chicks were not the source of the depth of my distress. It was the 4th of July, and that morning in the sleepy, upscale, suburban town where I live, a new high school graduate had been found murdered. I know her father. She was found by a passing bicyclist off a road I often ride. My heart was breaking – for her, for her family and friends, for the town, and also for the family of her former boyfriend, arraigned the next morning for her murder. Sadness and despair swept through me. I felt helpless.

The chapter ends and the story in the Torah morphs. The next thing we read is that the Reubenites and the Gadites prefer not to cross the Jordan, but to remain in the land the Lord has conquered, which is excellent land for all the cattle they have. Again, Moses isn’t happy, but this time there is a negotiation. The Reubenites and Gadites agree to go to war across the Jordan as shock-troops, but once the land is subdued, they will return to their new settlements in the Gilead.

Suddenly, something happened to me. I realized that I wasn’t helpless. I realized that the transformation that is happening in my chaplaincy and rabbinate left a door open to do something. I knew that as a Nature Chaplain, I could take hurting teens and adults from my town and stand with them on solid Earth, surrounded by trees and shrubs and flowers and birds, held beneath the blue or gray sky, and give them the opportunity to find a moment of healing. I understood that a Nature Chaplain could be present with people in a crisis and bring a moment of peace. My sadness remained, but my despair and sense of helplessness vanished. I was being transformed.

In the parashah, the movement is from vengeance to compromise. But there is also transformation – of the people of Israel. The Reubenites and the Gadites are claiming their singular identity. They are saying, “We are part of the people of Israel, and we will stand by them in crisis, but we also are unique, and we must live in the place and the space that is the right one for us.” A powerful differentiation is taking place.

Loss, pain, sadness, despair, grief…all of these and so many other difficult emotions have power – they have the power to bring about transformation and differentiation. They touch us in places deep in our hearts, places previously untouched, and when we allow those feelings to flow through us, without avoiding them or transferring them to something or someone else, the powerful Presence of Healing can shift us to a new place and a new space wherein we will find an unexpected peace.

Before going to bed, I went to check on the chicks. I couldn’t find them. But they were not flattened on the street, as I had worried they would be. Perhaps, after all, their mother had found them and had taken them safely into the woods by the river at the bottom of the hill.


Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is a board certified chaplain, a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and the founder and leader of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope, through which she has recently begun the Nature Chaplaincy Program. For more information about Ma’yan Tikvah, visit http://mayantikvah.org, and for a description of a Nature Chaplain, visit http://mayantikvah.org/naturechaplain.html.