The Best Stories Are The Ugly Ones

Like many synagogue-attending Jews, I spend a significant chunk of the summertime pondering the book of Numbers. The Torah–meaning specifically the Five Books of Moses–is read in its entirety each year, beginning and ending on the holiday of Simchat Torah in October. That means Numbers is read at roughly the same time every year.

When we started the book, a couple of weeks ago, I declared, “Yes! My favorite book of the Torah!”

My husband wrinkled his nose. “Why would Numbers be your favorite? The Jewish people look horrible–that business with the spies, the complaining about no meat, Korach and his disciples challenging Moses’s authority…”

“But those are actually good stories–dramatic! And we learn so much from them!”

Clearly, my husband and I have different opinions about what makes an enjoyable story. My husband enjoys stories that make him feel good, whereas I prefer stories which provide both conflict and insight.

Ecclesiastes tells us (7:20): “…there is no perfectly righteous man on earth who [always] does the right thing and never sins.” While many Christians view Jesus as entirely free of sin and Catholics opine, by doctrine, that the Pope is infallible, Jewish texts devote a lot of space to detailing the mistakes of our ancestors and heroes–even the greatest among them.

Sarah laughs when told she’ll have a baby at 90. Moses loses his temper and smacks a rock G-d told him to speak to. Samson marries unsuitable women. Saul second-guesses the will of G-d and then goes insane.

Knowing that even the noblest individuals among humankind make mistakes helps us acknowledge and address our own failings without incapacitating shame. And seeing where they went wrong helps us detect our inner weaknesses before they manifest in actions–like preventative medicine, we ingest it first and stay healthy.

If the Jews didn’t complain about the manna (Numbers 11:4), we might not introspect about our own dissatisfaction with life’s blessings. Their failure teaches us to count our blessings. If the great prophetess Miriam never gossiped with the high priest, Aaron, about their brother’s private life (ibid 12:1), we’d lose the opportunity to rectify the destructive power of negative speech.

Character faults feed conflict, which doesn’t just keep us turning pages. Jonathan Gottschall, in his book The Storytelling Animal, writes, “Trouble is the fat red thread that ties together the fantasies of pretend play, fiction, and dreams, and trouble provides a possible clue to a function they all share: giving us practice dealing with the big dilemmas of human life (p.83).”

We might cringe at the failure of the Jewish people in the Wilderness, but their misadventures will hopefully clear some obstacles in our own journey through life. Even those who don’t enjoy such stories can appreciate them. This includes my husband. After his initial shock at my love for Numbers, he conceded that he has learned a lot from the embarrassing (and even shocking) stories it contains.

If you spot me in synagogue this week, I might be squirming at the ugly bits of the Torah reading. (Chief among them: Moses will smack the rock instead of talking to it when Miriam’s well dries up, and he’ll then be banned from entering the Land of Israel.) However, that doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the story–or learn from it.

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