The Catastrophic Cycle of Dehumanization: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

I can’t get the image out of my mind.  A two year-old toddler wandering amidst the chaos and horror, looking for his parents, whom he does not know are lying dead among the dozens of others murdered and injured, who simply had come to enjoy a Fourth of July Parade.

This has been a week of profound anguish and pain, another week in a year of calamitous violence.

On the rooftop overlooking the Highland Park, Illinois parade, what did Robert Crimo III see when he aimed his gun at Irina and Kevin McCarthy, and the many, many others whom he shot with the 83 bullets fired from his assault rifle?

The consequences of dehumanization can be catastrophic.

In our Torah portion this week, Miriam, Moses’ sister, dies and is laid to rest.

Immediately, the people gather against Moses and Aaron. In bitter lament they demand their leaders provide them with water.

God instructs Moses to gather the people around a rock and order it to produce water.  Instead, Moses cries: “Listen, you rebels! Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10)

Then Moses struck the rock twice with his staff and out gushed water, abundant enough to slake the thirst of the people and their beasts.

But then God tells Aaron and Moses: “Because you did not trust Me enough to sanctify me in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:15)

How could it be that after all that Moses had given and sacrificed through the trials of the wilderness that now God would impose such an extraordinary punishment?  What was the sin that Moses committed to warrant such a consequence?

The great sage Maimonides suggests that Moses’ sin lay in how he allowed himself to be overcome with anger.  In his rage, Moses called the people “מורים – Morim – Rebels”.  “Had he not been angry at the people,” Maimonides teaches, “… he would not have forgotten the instruction that he was to speak to the rock.”

But isn’t Moses’ anger justified?

Moses had just lost his older sister Miriam, who saved his life as an infant, making sure he was safely retrieved from the waters of the Nile.  The Midrash teaches that because of her righteous care for her brother, a well followed Miriam in wilderness, satisfying the people’s need for water.  When Miriam died, the well was turned into a stone, and thus caused the people’s thirst.

With no water to drink, lost in their own sense of fear and vulnerability, the people turn angry.  They offer no condolences to Moses and Aaron. They express no compassion.  Instead, their fear and anger blinds them to the humanity of their leaders.

Ignored, unappreciated, and attacked, Moses feels dehumanized. And that dehumanization causes Moses terrible resent, anger, and pain.

And so just as the people dehumanized him, so too does Moses dehumanize the people. He sees them only as “rebels,” not as individuals frightened and lost, with legitimate needs for water and sustenance.

Then, as now, the cycle of dehumanization leads to catastrophe.

In looking at the perpetrators of mass shootings, one thing seems to be in common – they felt dehumanized.

David Brooks writes that: “These young men are frequently ghosts. They often experience early childhood trauma, like abuse or extreme bullying. In school no one knows them. Boys and girls turn their backs on them. …”

“Humans only realize how much they crave the recognition of the world when that recognition is withheld … It feels shameful to be so unworthy of human attention. We see ourselves as others see us, and when no one sees us, our sense of self disintegrates.”

From the dehumanization they suffer, they in turn, learn to dehumanize.  And from that dehumanized place they lose their humanity, and commit acts so inhumane it eviscerates the soul.

When Moses stopped seeing the humanity of those he was tasked to lead, he was no longer fit to lead them into the Promised Land.

For that land, and our land, will only be made holy when we cease to be consumed by anger and resentment, when we stop allowing people to become invisible, and instead celebrate the unique and sacred humanity to be found in each and every one of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

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