September 26, 2018

TABLE FOR FIVE: Chukat

Weekly Parsha: One verse, five voices
And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” Numbers 20:10-12

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
The Open Temple
Grief cracks open our hearts, pouring forth the unexpected emotions we have for those we have lost. Numbers is filled with metaphor and literary doubling, and here, Moses’ insolence when hitting the rock instead of God’s commanded “speak to the rock” is also the Lear-like rambling of a man who has lost something beloved to him — his primary savior and sister, Miriam HaNeviyah.

Grief transforms Moses. However, Numbers 20 is traditionally interpreted as an expression of Moses’ “anger management problem” and death in exile, his punishment. But what if we “change our way of seeing” this translation? Might the implicating quip, “Listen, Rebels,” be read as a more compassionate, “Please hear, Miriam” (as the word “Hamo’reem,” in pre-Masoretic Hebrew without vowels, might also be read as “Ha-Miryam”), rewriting the verse as Moses’ grievous plea to his dead sister who quenched the thirst for the wandering Israelites: “Please, Hear, Miriam; Might we get water for you out of this rock?” 

What follows is not unbridled anger, but Torah’s illustration of human behavior in the wake of loss. In the throes of Miriam’s death, Moses’ striking of the rock is a poetic expression of the existential futility he feels as he faces the unpredictability of grief. Any equanimity that Moses might possess — even as God’s most intimate prophet — is rendered impotent in the face of death’s finality. Indeed, grief is gloriously defiant of death in all of its mystery, and perhaps Moses reminds us that it is the most powerful emotion of all.

As I wrote these words, I learned that my father died. May Melvyn Schneide’s (z”l) — and Miriam HaNeviyah’s — memory be for a blessing. And may we grow through each loss into more compassionate and alive souls for one another.  

Eric Kaplan
Executive producer, The Big Bang Theory
Doctor of philosophy
This is a horrible week for me because the United States is taking children from their parents and putting them in camps as a way to deter migrants by means of psychological torture. This makes me ashamed to be an American. It also makes me ashamed to be a human being who desires happiness for myself and my family while other people’s children sob in cages.

To escape this shame, I am trying to inspire compassion in others.

Compassion — chesed — is like water. Anyone terrified and ashamed thirsts for compassion like Moses thirsted to draw water for his people. How do we get others to care when their hearts are rock? Can we force them? Can we break them with passionate or logical arguments? Can we shame them?

I think when our country is placing children in camps, it is a desperately dangerous situation. We must use any means necessary. Ideally, we get the water to flow by speaking of God — our shared divinity, or our shared humanity. If that works, we will be redeemed and enter our Promised Land.

If we resort to argument or shame to save those children, and like Moses we strike those hearts of stone to force compassion to flow, we will be banned from our Promised Land for creating division between us. Poor Moses and poor us if that is our fate. Poor Moses and poor us if we use the stick rather than the word.

But if we get an effective policy of love for those children it will be worth it.

Rabbi Aryeh Markman
Aish LA
What if we lived forever? Wouldn’t that be great? 

The planet would be overcrowded, and getting that promotion would be challenging with your 1,000-year-old boss scrutinizing you. Change would never happen with so much living tradition preferring the status quo.  

Evidentially, to become a fully actualized person, one must have the opportunity to take on responsibility without fallback options. The bridges are burned. Go forth or else! 

And so it is with the Jewish people. Moses and Aaron could not lead the Jewish people forever. The new generation born in the wilderness had matured with different needs and outlook. They were born free, not slaves. They lived under God’s manifest presence in the desert and now needed to transform themselves, upon entry into the Land of Israel, into farmers, artists and entrepreneurs. It called for new leadership.  

Thus God put Moses and Aaron into an impossible situation of a crazed crowd dying of thirst.  God’s solution was almost impossible to achieve under the circumstances. The consequence of failure: an exit from the world’s stage.  

And so it is with every generation.

I am beginning to see my friends become the oldest of their family lines as their grandparents and parents pass on. They inherit this position of responsibility with a new outlook. The blessing is that they will become greater people and we, as Jews, a greater people because the mantel of destiny has been passed on whether or not we want it.  

Embrace it and do your best to prepare those who will follow you.

Rabbi Jordana Schuster Battis
Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland, MA
Excerpted from myjewishlearning.com/article/responding-to-thirst
Ibn Ezra explains that Moses’ grave error was in calling the people “rebels” when their behavior was not, in fact, rebellious. In God’s view, it was not the people who were rebels in this story but Moses and Aaron themselves.

Moses’ failure resided in his misidentification as “rebellious” the people’s legitimate behavior. Their complaints about the lack of water needed to be honored with regard and compassion rather than the ire and frustration Moses meted out. Though Moses had borne 40 years of frequent complaints from these same people, their demand for water needed to be considered anew and respected in full. His frustration and fatigue were no excuse for his refusal to accept the people’s request. This refusal, in turn, represented a failure to make God holy in their eyes.

Like Moses, we may have undergone our own pain and loss, we may have journeyed too far without enough resources or support, or we may be overwhelmed by the neediness of those who face us. For these reasons and many others, we do not always give. We do not always feel that we can give. Like Moses, we have had occasion to hear others’ grievances and identified them as affronts against us, as greed, or perhaps we have turned away unwilling or unable to face their needs with an open hand.

Our own needs and thirsts should not be denied. Still, our responsibility to make God holy in the eyes of others makes it incumbent upon us not to deny the thirsts of those who turn to us for help.

Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Chief rabbi of the congregations of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth
Excerpted from chiefrabbi.org/all-media/dvar-torah-parashat-chukat

“HaShem called out to Moshe and Aharon,” because the two of you did not sufficiently believe in me to sanctify my name.

Hold on … where did Aharon come from? Moshe was the only person involved in this whole, epic drama, Aharon did nothing.

But that’s the whole problem — Aharon did nothing. He should have done something.

You know, there is a mitzvah in the Torah in Parashat Kedoshim, “Hocheiach Tocheiach Amitecha” (“You shall surely reprove your fellow”). And the Passuk there says, “Hocheiach Tocheiach” in order to tell us that sometimes it is a mitzvah to intervene, but sometimes it is a mitzvah to keep shtum.

To keep shtum, you are quiet when your intervention could actually make things worse, that is sometimes what happens. However, if your intervention can save the day, if you can prevent somebody from doing something wrong, then of course you need to open your mouth.

And that’s exactly what Aharon failed to do. He could have inspired and motivated his brother to do the right thing, but he just stood there, not opening his mouth at all. And therefore, he was an accomplice and he suffered the fate of his brother. Both of them did not merit to enter into the Holy Land.

It was Edmund Burke who famously taught, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”