The disorienting dilemma

By Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen
Parashat Hukkat

The Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger) tells us that the opening words of this week’s parasha, Hukkat (Bamidbar 19-21), “Zot hukkat haTorah,” refer to something different than the words of Deuteronomy which we repeat each week as we lift the Torah scroll to return it to the Ark. The latter phrase — “V’zot haTorah” — states our recognition that the Law has been set out before us collectively. The Sfat Emet says that the former challenges each one of us to take the law into ourselves and engrave it in our own individual hearts — etch it into our very beings. By this the Sfat Emet means for us to make the learning into our very own, something that informs us, even as we draw upon everything else about a situation that we need to know.

In the field of education, the idea of transformative learning describes how a learner can take in information in different ways and make it fully their own. “Knowing how you know involves awareness of the context — sources, nature and consequences — of your interpretations and beliefs and those of others…. Informed decisions require not only awareness of the source and context of our knowledge, values and feelings but also critical reflection on the validity of their assumptions or premises” (“Learning as Transformation,” Mezirow & Associates, Jossey Bass, 2000, p.7). Transformative learning is different from absorbing instruction. We critically apply what we know as befits each new context. Parenting is an example of continuous opportunity to consider what and how we know, as we shape our response to new challenges and opportunities with our children. To gain critical reflection, one who has experienced transformative learning has often experienced what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma,” an experience that jars us awake from the assumptions upon which we have operated and causes us to critically reflect. Moses’ encounter at the burning bush was a disorienting dilemma. God has a way of doing that to us!

This week Parashat Hukkat again presents Moses with a disorienting dilemma. At Meribah, Moses is hard-pressed by the Israelites who have complained bitterly since Egypt. When the people now complain about lack of water, Moses carries out God’s instructions to bring water forth from the rock. But instead of speaking to the rock, Moses says angrily to Israel: “Listen you rebels” and strikes the rock. Moses has lost the context of the people’s complaint and written them off as ungovernable, when in fact — they actually have no water! Disorientation when one is overwhelmed can cause us to settle for familiar, less uncomfortable patterns, even choosing to avoid new experiences that challenge our perspective at all. Moses is worn out and not his visionary best. Even the greatest among us is hard-pressed to remain open and circumspect to every situation as we find it. Yet, Moses could not have led us out of bondage through the wilderness and set before us a future without the ability to learn deeply in such a way as to transform his vision. While we each go through disorienting times, it depends how open we can be as to whether we are able to come through the experience with new perspective. May this Shabbat refresh our souls and give us strength to open ourselves to the path of critical self-reflection.

Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen is a Certified Educator A.C.P.E. and director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care at The Legacy Senior Communities in Dallas. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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