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Devarim: The Danger of Projection

Updated: Nov 6, 2021

Parshas Devarim features the beginning of Moshe’s account to the Jewish people of the past forty years in the desert, as they stand poised to cross into the Land of Israel without him. Moshe outlines how the peoples’ sins, particularly that of sending the spies, caused a journey of mere weeks to instead take four decades to traverse (1:2, Rashi ibd.). Specifically, Moshe recounts how Bnei Yisrael asked to send spies, and Moshe acquiesced, though Hashem disagreed. He relates how, when the spies returned with their slanderous reports, Klal Yisrael were devastated, lamenting, “B’sinas Hashem Osanu Hotzianu Me’Eretz Mitzrayim,” God hates us, that is why He brought us out of Egypt, to be wiped out by the Emorim (1:27).

At first glance, this appears to be a wildly exaggerated statement on the part of Bnei Yisrael. How could they possibly think that God hated them? Had they not experienced His love and kindness through the plagues, the splitting of the sea, receiving the Torah, and surviving in the desert through the Mann and miraculous water sources? How could such behavior be interpreted as indicative of hatred?!

Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, explains something so powerful it is imperative to pause and consider this idea and reflect upon its implications for our lives and for this time of year. Rashi notes that it was not that Bnei Yisrael truly believed that God hated them; God loved them, and loves us. Rather, Klal Yisrael in that moment hated God, and as such projected that hatred onto him. Rashi quotes a saying of Chazal, “Mah Divlibach al Richimach, Ma Divlibeih Alach,” what is in your mind about another person you imagine is in his or her mind about you (Rashi, 1:27).

Rambam speaks about this idea as a helpful indicator for the particular Midos we’d be best advised to work on. If a certain trait bothers us in others, it is likely that we, too, should be working on developing in that particular area. Often, what upsets or worries us in other people says more about us than about them. In modern psychological terms, Sigmund Freud and proponents of psychoanalytic thought would call this projection, a defense against acknowledging unacceptable or uncomfortable feelings that we have toward others by instead accusing others of feeling that way about us.

According to Rashi, this is perhaps one explanation for Klal Yisrael’s insistence that Hashem hated them. When someone makes us feel scared or threatened or shamed, a very natural and typical response is to feel anger toward that person. Anger is often just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, beneath which lies fear, doubt, shame, or sadness. Caught in a sea of fear, doubt, and anxiety wrought by the spies’ report, Bnei Yisrael seethed with anger toward Hashem for making them feel vulnerable, for that was their interpretation of the spies’ report. Hatred toward God, however, likely felt too foreign and unacceptable to express - after all, He had demonstrated His love and devotion for the people on countless occasions. As such, it is possible that Bnei Yisrael engaged instead in projection, claiming that God hated them, as in some ways this was a more acceptable notion for them to hold.

And yet, regardless of the motivation, believing on any level that God hates us is often the beginning of the end, the crack in the foundation that causes our spiritual connection and relationship with God to crumble.

I have heard from R’ Chaim Marcus shlit”a in various Parsha and Tefillah shiurim that this pasuk, this moment when Bnei Yisrael believe and express that God hates them, is one of the most pivotal and gut-wrenching verses in all of Tanach with extremely integral implications for us in the present day. Belief that God hates us is a wall that prevents any connection with God from being fostered or reconstructed, and it is made all the more painful by the fact that it is simply not true. R’ Wolbe discusses in multiple places that in the cycle of the Jewish calendar as well as in the timeline of every Jew’s life, there are what he calls Yimei Sinah and Yimei Ahava, days of love and days of hatred. Notably, R’ Wolbe explains that the period of time we are in now, from 17 Tammuz through and including Tisha B’Av, are Yimei Sinah. What does this mean?

Yimei Sinah are days when it is difficult to internalize and believe the reality that Hashem loves us, deeply, always. Days when our dedication to our spiritual growth wanes and our motivation to engage in a relationship with God diminishes. Yimei Sinah are not days when God hates us; rather, they are days when our pain is so strong, our confusion, stress, hurt, and fear so terribly potent, that we begin to G-d forbid hate Him in response to our struggles and suffering. This, of course, is bad enough: many of us have likely had days where we grapple with God, when anger and frustration abound and the word “WHY” (in all caps) is ever-present in our conversations with Him, if we are willing to converse with Him at all. Yet perhaps the saddest part and the greatest danger of these difficult times in life and in history is the potential for these moments to turn from “God, why are You doing this to me? I am angry at you!” to, “God, You must hate me. You do not love me; maybe You never have.” This is a darkness that is monumentally more difficult to escape.

The time period of the Nine Days, and particularly Tisha B’Av itself, are days set aside for this kind of grappling. Stemming from the very first moment that Klal Yisrael questioned God’s love for them and wondered whether He might actually hate us, Tisha B’Av has always been a day of deep pain and existential chaos, filled with this sort of questioning and the threat of spiritual disconnection. We wrestle with the difficult questions. We ask, through Yirmiyahu HaNavi, “Eicha,” how could it be? We cry, and we scream, and we pound on the gates of Heaven and demand answers, explanations for the pain and suffering. We let our anger out, and we uncover the sadness and grief beneath. And then we let that take up space, too. And yet, even during the days that are set aside for wailing and lamenting, even while we may question and struggle, we must watch out for the danger of projecting our frustration and pain onto God, and making the grave mistake of thinking that He hates us.

This is by no means an easy or simple task. It requires nuanced thinking, the ability to live in the grey area where God’s actions that we perceive and experience as bad, painful, unfair, can coexist with the reality that still, He loves us. I have far from mastered this way of thinking or living. I grapple with God, I try to choose to fight with Him, to relate to Him and connect even on the level of my deepest pain and confusion, rather than to turn away from Him in the mistaken belief that He no longer cares about me. And, this is a difficult and emotional task.

R’ Marcus suggests that one tangible and useful way of counteracting this notion that God might hate us is to have special Kavannah in the prayer of Ahava Raba that we say each day before Shema. The purpose of reminding ourselves of God’s fierce and undying love for us immediately before Kabalas Ol Malchus Shamayim is, of course, reflective of the significance of internalizing this love. We cannot truly serve God if we do not first believe in His incredible, boundless love for us, even while acknowledging that His love may not always manifest in ways we can easily categorize as loving.

This week, and especially on Tisha B’Av, take a moment to ask yourself this toughest of questions. Are you struggling with the notion that God might hate us? Is that a reflection of the difficult jumble of emotions and questions within you that you may have for Him? Can you take advantage of this time of year to turn to God with your questions and grievances, allowing Him to hold you in your pain and suffering, rather than to turn away from Him? And if you are not ready for that yet, to whom can you turn with your questions, with your anger and sadness? Can you allow yourself to lean on others to help you wade through the muck of your own feelings toward God? Perhaps in the merit of our bravery and vulnerability in turning inward rather than projecting onto God, we will soon be dancing together this Tisha B’Av at the gates of the third and final Beis HaMikdash.

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