In the Book of Leviticus, God describes the punishments that the Jewish people will face if they don’t follow God’s rules. One of the first punishments listed is beh-hala, feeling unsettled, disturbed or panicked. Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra who lived in Spain during the 11th century expands upon this, teaching that beh-hala involves being frightened and having no clue as to how to resolve your fear. Given this, I understand beh-hala as overwhelming anxiety.
In this week’s Torah portion we read about the last three plagues and see how Moses’ efforts pay off as Pharaoh finally breaks, liberating the Israelites. At this tremendous moment of victory for Moses, it’s easy to forget that just two weeks ago we were reading that Moses himself struggled with what we might define as beh-hala. The man responsible for freeing our ancestors, the great Moses, suffered from anxiety. When God approached him and told him he would be the leader of Israelites, teaching them about God, organizing them as a people and standing up to Pharaoh, the Torah gives us a glimpse of overwhelming anxiety Moses struggled with. The way in which he begs God not to place this burden upon him, the questions he asks God and his disclosure that “I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” implying that he won’t be capable of speaking before the people, paint the picture of a man in panic mode, trying unsuccessfully to bring things under control.
I’m sure, like me, many of you (and millions of others) can relate to Moses. So many of us have experienced our own beh-hala and we know how crummy it can feel. And, as our ancestors toiled for Pharaoh and wandered in the desert after being liberated from Egypt, we know that our ancestors struggled with anxiety. It’s why beh-hala is listed as one of the first punishments in the Book of Leviticus. It was the perfect “threat” to place before the Israelites as they attempted to build an organized community: follow the rules or else you’ll have an anxiety attack. From the point of view of a religious community attempting to bring about order, it makes sense. But, the notion that anxiety is divine retribution is so dangerously unhealthy. It’s perfectly imperfect fodder for the millions of anxious minds out there. And, it’s wrong.
The Torah teaches us that Moses struggled with anxiety, anxiety that could’ve kept him from saving the Israelites. Despite his anxiety, he is chosen by God to lead the people. God wouldn’t have selected someone who was unworthy for such a prestigious role. From this we see that Moses’ anxiety wasn’t a punishment, it was part of who he was. Just like it’s part of who many of us are. Interestingly, God doesn’t let Moses hide behind his anxiety. God pushes Moses to embrace his fears and grow. This is a religious model I can embrace – a model that encourages us to see God as the strength we need to push through our anxiety. And thankfully, this model is part of our tradition.