Flex Your Spiritual Muscle

Flex Your Spiritual Muscle

From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon

The short but powerful story in Numbers 12, reveals tension between Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Aaron and Miriam call out their brother on account of his relationship with “that Cushite woman,” and for the privilege of God’s intimate communication, panim el panim, face-to-face, alone. God’s reaction is swift. Miriam suffers physically and Aaron struggles emotionally. He appeals for his sister and Moses responds without delay. Moses cries out to God, saying, “God, pray heal her,” El na r’fah na lah. His succinct appeal to God is efficient and effective. And classic commentators don’t waste time reconciling the short prayer with its purpose.   

Sforno (15 c) explains the short prayer as a plea that Miriam should be healed immediately to spare her the embarrassment of leaving the camp. Bachya (13 c) explains that Moses prays specifically to El, because it is the attribute of El that has the power to heal. Sforno is focused on her healing for the sake of her standing in the camp. She should be healed quickly to avoid embarrassment, including isolation and depression. Bachya identifies El as the source of what Miriam needs, namely, mercy and compassion. The result is that she emerges from her suffering with renewed faith in the power of prayer that’s answered by a forgiving and compassionate God.

At the heart of this dilemma and its cure is Moses’s spiritual relationship with God. Moses’s prayer summons Biblical-style healing, but also copious amounts of renewed faith and hope that delivers Miriam and Aaron from their suffering. Moses developed this “spiritual muscle,” so to speak, over years of leading the Israelites people.

In our parashah, Moses organized his words and his way to exercise his spiritual muscle to attend to his sister’s suffering. With courage, yes, but also a developed spiritual muscle, he summoned the words, said them to God, and emerged with his brother and sister to move on as a community, not unscathed but not without fear or hopelessness, either.

The lesson is not lost on us. When we need spiritual muscle, we can exercise it at will to effect hopefulness and faithfulness, too. The scientist and author, Lisa Miller, Ph.D., in her book, “The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life,” explains:

  1. Spirituality strongly correlates with a reduced rate of suffering. That if you are spiritual, you are protected and inured from otherwise increased risk.
  2. High-risk people who built a spiritual muscle to respond to suffering were protected against the downward spiral the next time sorrow or disappointment came around, because they had cultivated a spiritual response.
  3. Protective benefits of spirituality were incontrovertible.

Lisa Miller’s recommendations don’t prevent depression. They don’t serve as an antidote to its effects; but Miller’s research proves that those who develop a spiritual muscle through participation in spiritual development emerge from depression, despair, and other of life’s traumas. They don’t succumb to their troubles; they find their way clear of them.

The role of an “Awakened Brain,” can enable us to be, not Moses, but similarly prepared to summon hopefulness reflected in song, prayer, poetry, and ritual, and emerge to live another day to flex our spiritual muscle. And though we are not Moses, we are still leaders and role models, too. May we find within us the spiritual muscle to overcome our fears and failings to become who God intends us to be on our best, or perhaps, just our better days. 


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