In the weeks before he left for camp, my youngest son, Toby, and I started watching the sitcom “Modern Family” together. It has been a delight to rediscover this show that I remember being stupendously funny the first time around and to share it with my kid now. (It’s also really interesting to see which parts of the show hold up 15 years later and which ones could use a rewrite.)

Like any good family-oriented sitcom, one of the things that makes “Modern Family” work is the way it reflects the real-life dynamics of so many families. And indeed that’s kind of the main point of the show: Parent-child relationships–of both little kids and grown children–seem to have some predictable characteristics across families no matter how they’re configured. So many people from so many different backgrounds could watch “Modern Family” and find themselves laughing because they could see themselves reflected in what they saw on the screen.

There’s a particular episode from one of the early seasons in which one of the sets of parents, Phil and Claire, find a burn mark on the couch just before Christmas. Because it’s about the width of a cigarette, they immediately conclude that one of their children must have been smoking. They sit the kids down and Phil rushes into an ultimatum: Confess, or we’re not having Christmas this year. None the kids owns up, and Phil, in a way that skirts the bounds between firmness and violence, starts dismantling the Christmas tree.

The episode continues from there, with the parents ratcheting up the pressure and the kids trying to figure out whether to confess to a crime that it increasingly becomes clear they didn’t commit. For me as a parent, what was so painfully recognizable was the conversation between Phil and Claire in which they acknowledge they (well, really Phil) moved too quickly to DEFCON 1–but then wonder about whether to back down. Their basic calculus is this: “If we back down now, the kids will never believe any threat of consequences again in the future.” So they stick to their guns despite their better judgment. (If you want the spoiler to the mystery: It turns out, of course, that it wasn’t a cigarette burn at all but rather a burn caused by the sun refracted through the star on top of the Christmas tree.)

I hear echoes of this all-too-familiar dynamic in Moses’s dialogue with God after the incident of the spies. In this case, of course, the kids really did mess up: after the spies return their worrisome report about the Promised Land, the people’s deflation turns to rebelliousness, despite the encouragement of Joshua and Caleb. God’s instinct is to start over: “I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Num. 14:12) But Moses, as he did previously after the sin of the Golden Calf, reminds God that there’s a political dimension to this conversation: The Egyptians will hear that, despite all of God’s great power, God still couldn’t manage to get the Israelites safely to Canaan. So wiping them out would be a bad move.

But Moses, acting here, as it were, as God’s rabbi, also recognizes the bind that God is in–and points God to an off-ramp. He reminds God of God’s own words: God’s attributes of mercy, patience, and forgiveness that the Holy One originally proclaimed during the Golden Calf episode. And he invites the Holy One to live up to that greatness: “And now, let your power be great… pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your loving kindness, just as you have been bearing it for this people from Egypt until now.” (Num. 14:17-19)

God, of course, relents and comes up with a different solution–perhaps the solution that needed to be invoked all along: more time. This generation simply wasn’t ready to manage the transition from Egypt to Canaan. God’s expectations were simply too high. So, change plans: the people will need to wander in the desert for 40 years until a new generation can arise, one that is in better condition to enter the Promised Land.

There are, of course, potential lessons to be inferred about wars and politics from this episode. (Several years ago I published an article, drawn from my dissertation research, about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations committee regarding the war in Vietnam. The lessons he draws are evocative of this story.)

But we encounter the truth of this story on a day to day and even moment to moment level: certainly for those of us who are parents, but truly for all of us who are in any kind of relationship that experiences hope and expectation, the subversion of those hopes or expectations, and the choice we confront of what to do about it. One of the things the Torah seems to be saying here is that all of us, even the Holy Blessed One, experience frustration, anger, resentment. And all of us can make rash decisions and proclamations on the basis of those strong emotions. Those decisions are rarely the best ones, but we can wind up in what feels like a cul-de-sac looking for a way out.

The good news, the Torah teaches us, is that, like the Divine, we images of the divine also have the power of hesed within us. We, too, can activate that power. Likely that activation will be aided by the help of a friend, a coach, a clergyperson. But we have the power within us to act in ways that are more loving, generous, and forgiving. From prayer to Torah study to Shabbat to Yom Kippur–which re-enacts the forgiveness after the Golden Calf and this forgiveness after the spies–our spiritual practices are regular opportunities to develop and strengthen these muscles of hesed.

Josh's Friday Reflections

Every Friday morning, IJS President & CEO Rabbi Josh Feigelson shares a short reflection on the week in preparation for Shabbat. Josh weaves together personal experience, mindfulness practice, and teachings from the weekly Torah portion in a uniquely accessible and powerful way. Sign up to receive Josh’s weekly reflections here.

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