Hukkat — 5770

24/06/2010 at 18:26 Leave a comment

“Traveling Light”

Shabbat Hukkat

19 June 2010

Neil F. Blumofe

As the Israelites move from place to place, their temper progressively gets more and more uneasy and their God seems now to communicate with a shorter and quicker impatient fuse.  They have been wandering and have lately lost two of their leaders – Miriam and Aharon.  Our tradition teaches that beyond the connections that Miriam has to water – there is a well known midrash that it is through Miriam’s merit that the people had water to drink from a well that accompanied their journey in the wilderness and now that she was dead the well dried up and disappeared – beyond this, our tradition teaches that it is through the death of a righteous person that the community gains atonement.

As you think about the ramifications of this, consider that the Torah does not record the people grieving for Miriam’s passing.  Rather, just after her death when the water is no more we hear them quailing their familiar trope to Moses and Aharon, this time is expanded form – v’lu ga’vanu bigva acheinu lifnei haShem.  V’lamah haveitem et k’hal haShem el hamidbar hazeh lamut sham anachnu u’vireinu! V’lamah he’e’litunu mi’mitzrayim l’havi otanu el hamakom hara hazeh lo m’kom zera ut’einah v’gefen v’rimon u’mayim a’yin lishtot! – If only we had perished as our brothers perished before God.  Why have you brought the community of God to this wilderness to die there, we and our animals?  Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this evil place – not a place for a seed, a fig, or a grape or a pomegranate – and there is no water to drink! On their travels, we can see that the people are anxious, now that a source for sustaining life has disappeared.

And after Aharon’s death, right on the heels of his sister, we see the people have quite a different reaction – we see that he was mourned by everyone for thirty days, both men and women.  Our midrashim teach that after the Israelites resumed their journey after their mourning, the pillar of cloud which had constantly guided and protected the people on their journey and was a symbol for God’s presence, now disappeared because it existed only by virtue of the deeds of Aharon.

So with the deaths of Miriam and Aharon, the people lose their source of readily available water and they too lose their sense of direction and comfort that even in tight spaces God is with them.  As they travel, we see a more activist God who participates in the dramas of their situation, perhaps mending their concerns and addressing their disquiet and too reacting with some impatience as this group repeats the errors of the previous actors and leaders.

How do we learn what we need to know in life?  It is taught that we learn by our mistakes, but really, how many mistakes do the people of Israel need to make before gaining a corrective?  The people trek through the land that they had already gone through and again the people raise their voice – this time against Moses and God – lamah he’elitunu mi’mitzrayim lamut bamidbar ki ein lechem v’ein mayim v’nafsheinu ka’tsah balechem hak’lokei – why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness – for there is no food and no water and our soul is disgusted with the insufficient food of the manna.

Traveling is hard.  And as the people complained about their plight it got worse.  God sent han’choshim has’rafim – fiery serpents to attack the people and many people died as the people came before Moses to plead that this plague be removed.  As Moses prays to God, God responds in a curious way – God commands Moses to make a fabrication of a fiery serpent and place it on a high stick – and it would be that anyone who was bitten by the snakes would look at this representation and live.  Moses complied and made the snake out of copper and this queer bit of sympathetic magic stopped the outbreak.

These three incidents are just stitches in time – after Miriam’s death, after Aharon’s death and after the infestation of snakes – these are instant, digital pictures from the giant album of wandering.  It would be hazardous to knit a theological thread through these experiences to reason out meaning and consequence for just a few verses later the beleaguered people are enjoying victory against the Amorites and their contemporary troubles seem beyond them.

What do we learn on our travels?  Can we look at our lives in retrospect as a prognosticator looks at tea leaves?  The saying goes that with little work, one can change surroundings, but it is much harder to change yourself.  How do we see that we have benefited from our hard won experiences over time — or do we find ourselves immersed in the same circumstances time after time, even if we have tried to change our life?  Despite our best intentions, is the trajectory of our lives more akin to the movie Groundhog’s Day then it is to any substantive movement, change or difference?

Do we not try to convince ourselves otherwise?  How can we stop ourselves from take the same route of our ancestors – who in turn took the same routes through the wilderness, walking on the same road as the spies did, spending a life time stepping on a roundabout of anger and reprieve, without end?  Where is transformation?

We quickly learn in this portion that while we benefit and enjoy another’s company, ultimately in our lives, there is no one to save us and protect us.  We learn important lessons of self-reliance, gaining insight and living with honor and dignity in rapidly changing circumstances and upended paradigms – here we see the Israelites at home, not dressed up for guests – alone in their anxieties and fears – if you think of it poetically, by studying this section of Torah, we are witnessing their lives in their elegant disorder, in their majestic heartbreak and in their grand gesture of perseverance.  In our study, we learn what to do and more importantly, what not to do – how to live in moderation and how to mourn appropriately – not too much and not too little.  We learn to appreciate and not to take for granted and we learn to hear what we actually say – how we are sometimes a broken record, or a phone off of its hook, bleating, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing that we can control.

Let us listen and hush our mouths and not respond in a kneejerk way to everything, thereby gaining strength to make significant changes – upending the cycle of the everyday – not reacting to the provocations of others, or the news cycles of the moment or even the condemnations of nations – on our journey, let us pause and figure out what we need to do to improve, to make things better, not for the moment at hand, but so we may break the chains of tedious and risky inevitable repetition, so we may truly live.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Beha’alotcha — 5770 Balak — 5770

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