Parshat Hukkat: The Staff of Moses – A Tale of Connect and Disconnect

[Note: This bibliodramatic monologue is inspired by the work of Peter Pitzele, author of Scripture Windows, and the Torah commentary of Aviva Zornberg, author of Bewilderments, who presents classic and chassidic commentaries to the Torah in stunning and innovative ways. I am grateful for all that they have taught me.]


Introduction

There are a infinite number of stories in the Torah. There are the stories that we see in the written scroll on the surface. There are the stories that dwell just beneath the surface. There are also the silent stories, such as the stories of a object or an animal, but when we give voice to those stories, we reveal another facet of Torah. “What if…” is one of the best questions to help open up the Torah to learn more about ourselves, even in the voice of something a ignored as Moses’ staff. What if Moses’ staff could tell it’s story?


My final act in Moses’ hands was one of anger and violence. Everyone stood and watched as he took me in his hands, hurled angry insults at the people, who were just thirsty and scared. I felt the rough surface of the rock as I smashed into it. The tiny imperfections of the rock made dents in my soft wooden surface; small pieces of me where chipped away. Then a pause. Then a second blow to the rock, harder than the first, even angrier than the first time.

Then the water flowed from the rock, and everyone drank and watered their animals. But I knew that something broke in that moment. I had been abused, misused, and and remained solely as a reminder of destruction.

But I did not begin that way.

Years before, I was part a staff, I was part of something larger than myself, an acacia tree, one branch of strong tree that provided support for leaves, and shade for travelers and shepherds. I don’t recall feeling separate from the tree, just feeling of being ‘tree.’ Day after day, a man came with his flock and sat under my shade. After I don’t know how long, the man came again, but instead of sitting beneath me as he had for all of those days, he brought a small axe and removed me from my tree. I was born through an act of unintended violence and disconnect.

In his hands, my role changed and expanded. Where once I merely provided shade, now I provided leadership and guidance. Yes, it was just for a flock of goats and sheep, but still it was leadership. I was used to keep the flock together, fend off thieves, wild animals, keep track of our numbers, and to help Moses walk at every step. I supported him.

After sometime, we moved our flock to another remote part of the wilderness. After we sat down at the foot of a small mountain, one of the younger sheep, who had been separated from his mother, wandered off, confused, up the mountain. Naturally, Moses and I immediately trailed after it. Once we caught up to the lamb, we found ourselves about halfway up the mountain in a small resting place.

We sat under the shade of an outcropping of rock, waiting to cool off from the heat of the chase. Moses hand rested gently on me. All of a sudden, without warning, his grip became firm, and he leapt to his feet. Around the corner, a small shrub had been on fire, which happens from time to time in the wilderness. No big deal. Then, without warning, Moses sticks me into the middle of the blazing fire. I felt the heat on me, but it was not like any other fire I had encountered before. I was prepared to burst into flames, but it was a radiant beautiful heat. No fire. No burn. No black marks on me.

What happened next I still cannot fully understand. While Moses seemed to be in conversation with the shrub, I was overcome with this feeling like I was back on my tree but more so, like I was connected to the tree, and the ground, and to everything. It was like being a branch on a tree again, but a tree far larger than anything I had known or ever heard of.

The next thing you know, I have been flung to the ground, and turned into a snake! How did that happen?! I still have no idea. I remember that Moses jumped back from me in fear. His fear was not a new emotion for me. I had felt it before, but never directed at me. I wanted to call out, “Moses, it’s just me!” Slowly, he reached out his hand, grabbed hold of my “tail,” and I became myself again. But now, I felt not only that same sense of connection, but now I felt that I had been noticed, that I had a role to play in something larger than taking care of a flock of sheep. But it was not a role that I necessarily wanted to play.

When Moses confronted Pharaoh, he flung me down again to the ground, and I could feel my dead wooden cells transform into the cells of a snake. The next thing I know it, I am under attack from three other snakes. It’s me or them, and something deep in me knew what to do. I consumed them, each one in one gulp each. I felt excited and scared. Excited that I could be part of such mighty deeds, but scared because of my unknown future. How would I be used next? What harm would I be called upon to perform tomorrow?

Moses took me down to a river. I had only heard of rivers. I had never seen so much water flowing in one place in my life. What an amazing source of life and of abundance! Then, without warning, Moses struck the river with me, and it turned into blood. Why?! Why would I ever do that? How could I have betrayed the source of life of every tree on earth? For every living being on earth! This was not what I was meant for. But what I wanted did not matter. I became a tool of punishment and destruction. Plague after plague was invoked with me as the symbol of that destruction. When anyone caught sight of me in Moses’ hands, let alone come near me, they would cower in fear and trembling. I became ashamed of how I was being used. I vowed never to harm the waters or any living being again.

After we had left Egypt, the nation was camped out on the shore of the Sea of Reeds. My time of redemption had arrived. Moses used me to part the waters, who graciously did so, despite my complex history with the great river. Finally, I had returned to my roots, as a protector and a guide for people and animals.

Then not three days later, I was able to come to the rescue again. Turns out that the people only prepared for a three-day journey, and were out of water. Moses took me in hand, struck a rock with me, and (I have no idea how this happened) water came pouring out of the rock. And everyone saw, especially the elders. In that moment, they began to see me in a new way. I was not only a tool for punishment, death and destruction. I was a tool for life, abundance and prosperity.

The very next day, they tried to abuse me again. Some cowards and brigands attacked the people from behind, where the weakest of the people were walking. The elderly. Young children. The ill. Moses and the others wanted to use me in a time of war to help defeat the enemy. Despite the need, I refused. When Moses came to look for me, to become a symbol of violence again, I managed to hide myself in his tent. I rolled myself under a blanket, just out of sight. Given the urgency of the situation, he did not spend long looking for me, and gave up. Let him become the symbol of victory in battle, but not me.

Then somehow, I got lost in the shuffle. After the battle was over, Moses came back to the tent, exhausted, relieved, but he did not look for me. He had found that he did not need me in his hands all the time. His empty hands alone were enough for the people. However, Moses did find me again later. Most of the time, I was just his walking stick. There were no more plagues to invoke, no more droughts to end. Just a walking stick. I was there to support him in his work. Every know and then, someone who remembered would see me in Moses’ hands, and fall back or run away in terror, a reminder of the role that I had played for so long. Those memories were hard to erase.

Years passed, things became normal in our wanderings in the wilderness and eventually I was given a place of honor in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the entire camp. I was in the same room as the Ark, which held two pieces of rock from Mount Sinai, which was exactly where I had been thrust into that mysterious fire, and a jar of this foodstuff called manna, which was what the people ate every day. Hardly anyone every came in to see us. We were like a small museum to the past. We kept each other company. You should hear the stories that the ark, the stone tablets and manna could tell you, but that if for another time.

And there I sat until the entire generation that had left Egypt died in the wilderness. It was better that way. Better that those who remembered me a tool of destruction should let those memories fade. Let them die and not tell those stories about me.

Now we come to today. My final act. My last chance to start over. My chance to become a symbol of life for a new generation. Miriam, Moses’ sister, died earlier this week, and, at the same time for some reason, the water supply gave out. As if the past forty years had not happened, the people got thirsty, frustrated and angry again. It was back to square one all over again.

Sitting in the Holy of Holies, I could feel the people’s anger, being drawn to our sacred space like a magnet. But  this time, it was met with a stronger presence. That same feeling from the fire on the mountain came over me, that feeling of intense connection, of that Great Tree. If I had to locate that feeling in space, it would have come from above the cover of the ark, in between the two cherubim. It was a feeling of love, concern and compassion, meant to counteract the anger of the people, to let them know, that even in these moments of death, grief, and fear, that there is a presence in this universe that loves them, sees them in their sorrows and pain, and tries to comfort them, to show everyone that together there is the possibility of compassion and peace.

The sound of footsteps. The curtain to our private museum was quickly moved aside. Moses briskly entered our space, and, for the first time in years, sees me and takes me. In his grip, I can feel the fatigue, the frustration, the feeling that he is slipping, that the frustration is slowly bubbling over into anger.

Why could he not have lingered in my sacred space for more than a moment? Had he stayed there in that space, in that presence, maybe he would have felt that love, and compassion that I felt. What if he had just taken a few minutes in that private place to gather himself, to stand in that presence. What if…?

I was taken out into the light for the first time in a generation, and I saw the people. They were not slaves anymore. They were strong, tall and powerful. Tanned by the sun and born free in the wilderness. They had an air of discipline and focus to them, even in their distress. Moses looked so old compared to the eldest of them.

Moses opened his mouth: “Listen you rebels…” Listen you rebels? Why did he have to call them that? They were not rebelling! Why did he meet their anger and frustration with his own? It’s like he’s talking to someone else, or their parents and grandparents when they wanted water forty years ago.

Then the two blows come. One and then the other. Then the water flowed. And I become a sign of violence again. Yes, there is water, but at what price? I could have become a symbol of that connection to the Great Tree! I could have been a symbol of life, flowing energy and trust! Instead, I am reduced again to a weapon, a threat, a symbol of power to inflict pain, insult; to club a people into submission.

As the people drink, and slake their thirst, I can feel the disconnect. I suddenly felt the distance between Moses and the people. Maybe it was always there and I just became aware of it, or maybe there was a rupture in that moment. I actually don’t know how long it had been absent, whether it was moments or months, but in that moment, I could feel the chasm between them.

Something holy had broken, and nothing could fix it.

What if Moses had thought back to the time when we did this forty years earlier, to the love he felt for the people back then in those first days of literation, and channelled that love for those people to the ones standing before him now. If only I had never been used for punishment, for violence, for threats and death, but only for shade, guidance, splitting the waters, bringing water from the rock, then maybe when he held me in his hand, I could have been the key to unlocking everything that happened before this moment and everything that happened after this moment. Maybe I could have become more than a thing in his hand. I could have become a symbol of trust, connection and love.

Look at your own hands.

What is in your hands?

How will your wield it?

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Parshat Korach: Who will stop the plague?

This morning, after the main climax of the Korach rebellion, we read about the plague that to threatened to wipe out the entire nation after:

“Aaron took [the fire pan], as Moses had ordered, and ran to the midst of the congregation, where the plague had begun among the people. He put on the incense and made expiation for the people; he stood between the dead and the living until the plague was checked.” 

How does such a rebellion start? What are the roots of such a plague?

They often begin with a solitary person. This one begins with Korach. This morning, Ella [Wilson, that morning’s Bat Mitzvah] showed us a way to read Korach as a person ahead of his time, as a man of vision who lacked the understanding that his society was not ready to live according to his ideals. I want to go back to a more traditional way of understanding Korach, which is that of a man who harbors deep jealousy and hatred in his heart, and rallies others to his pain in the guise of a popular revolt.

Who is Korach? The opening verse of this week’s Torah portion tells us exactly who he is. He is a descendant of Levy, the tribe that has been appointed the priestly role in Israel, but more to the point, he is also the next in line after Aaron and his sons to become the prince of the tribe of Levy. However, for some unknown reason (or perhaps this rebellion illustrates the reasons) he is overlooked for the position, which is filled by one of Korach’s younger cousins, from a younger uncle.

The Rabbis imagine Korach sitting alone in his tent, jilted and jealous, plotting his revenge against Moses and Aaron, whom he sees as the responsible parties. His aspirations are nothing less than taking control of the people by appealing to the frustration of the masses.

Korach should have been willing to hear from others who think differently from him, to check out his ideas, to balance out his thoughts with those of others. Instead, he stewing in his feelings of injustice and mistreatment, and refused to see the good in Moses and Aaron, to understand the needs of the people at that time. Korach only saw it as an affront to his honor that he was not chosen to lead his tribe. No more. No less.

Korach’s sin is that he is completely self-absorbed. The size of his ego goes to the horizon of his entire world view, to the exclusion of all others around him. He cannot see anyone else beyond himself. Korach is not merely intolerant, because this is not about tolerance. Korach is filled with the feeling that he is the only one that really counts, born out of his sense that he deserves more because of his birth, because of his place in the tribal family tree, and his festers in to hatred of the other.

I see in Darryl Roof, the man who entered a church Wednesday evening, say through a bible study session, and then spewed hate-filled utterances, and opened fire, killing nine people, the same kind of hate. It’s not just tolerance we need to teach. We need to teach our children, and many adults as well, how to make room for the other in our lives, for people who are different than we are, who look, act and think differently than we do. In order to do that, we need to turn our focus away from ourselves and to refocus outward, so that our ego gets put into it’s proper place – not at the center of the world, but as a servant serving what is sacred, by being one of God’s servant.

What happened in Charlotte was not about many things.

  • This was not a boy behaving badly.
  • This is not about mental illness.
  • This is not about gun control.
  • This was not an attack on Christianity, or religion in general, even though this happened in a church.

A church! Houses of worship are the last safe haven. I have learned from the news in recent weeks that for so many:

  • Home is not safe.
  • Cars are not safe.
  • Pools are not safe.
  • Being on the street is not safe.

The doors of the church, the mosque, the synagogue are supposed to be open.

They welcomed Darryl Roof into their church to study a sacred text with them.

We come into a sanctuary to let our selves be vulnerable, to open ourselves up to the possibilities that our world can become a better place for everyone. When we walk through those doors, we let our guards down, and put our worries aside for a time.

The doors were open.

This was an act of violent racial terrorism, and an assassination of a publicly elected official.

In an article in the Washington Post, I read these four poignant paragraphs:

  • A 21-year-old millennial, in 2015, is alleged to have taken a page from the 1960s and assassinated a black political leader: South Carolina State Senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney was among the dead.
  • A 21-year-old millennial, by allegedly saying “You rape our women,” invoked the centuries-old defense of protecting white women as a justification for the slaughter of black people.
  • A 21-year-old donned early-20th-century symbols of apartheid and racist colonial regimes in Africa on his Facebook page.
  • A 21-year-old allegedly copied from the age-old playbook of racial terror, adding another bloody chapter to the long history of assaults on black people at churches in America.

This is about the plague of racism that exists in our country that we need to address.

The roots of this plague have deep roots in cultural, social, economic, and political history, more than I can delve into or even fully understand myself.

Moses and Aaron first respond to Korach’s challenge by falling on their faces. We white people could use a little falling on our faces and admitting how little we understand.

I will share one short story about race in Syracuse. Currently, I am the co-chair of the ACTS Clergy Caucus. ACTS is a grass roots organization that works on various issues of social justice in larger Syracuse. At the last Clergy Caucus, our guest speaker was Emmanuel Flower, from the Brady Faith Center and chair of the Youth and Violence Task Force. He shared with the group that day about the gang structures of Syracuse, both male and female gangs, what streets they each saw as their territory, and I realized that my life is a complete disconnect from anything happening beyond my predominantly white suburb.

Disconnect can lead to one human being to dehumanize another.

Yet, Aaron, the high priest, stood between the people and the plague.

We are called to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. We must be among those who stop this plague. And we have been among those who have tried to stop this plague. Fifty-one years ago today, seventeen American Rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida for protesting segregation in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They were arrested in part for protesting a whites only pool.

From their jailhouse cell, the Rabbis penned a letter which beautifully captured why they could not be silent in the face of racism. Their words still ring true today:

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We need to stop this plague. And it begins with us. To help us, I want to look at a familiar biblical text that contains the seeds of moving beyond race, and towards seeing every human being as made in the Image of God. This teaching comes to me from Rabbi Shai Held. [Note: This is a paraphrase of his teaching from his Facebook post.] When God creates biological life, whether it is plant or animal, there is always of acknowledgement of the diversity of that kind of life. Fruit trees of every kind. Seed-bearing plants of every kind. Living creature of every kind. Winged birds of every kind. Will beasts of every kind.

But when it comes for creating human beings, this phrase is subtly omitted:

And God said, “Let us make the human in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” And God created the human in God’s image, in the image of God, God created it; male and female God created them.”

There are no kinds of human beings. There is only one kind of human being, and that kind is made in God’s image. The Hebrew Bible will go on to explain, defend and celebrate human diversity later on, but that diversity is secondary to the unity of Genesis 1. Every human being is part of the same family, the same people. The Rabbis teach that this is to tell us that “no one can to anyone else that their ancestors is better than anyone else’s.” We all share one common human parent, not to mention the same one Heavenly Parent as well.

For some reason, this fundamental biblical lesson, in a country that prides itself on its religious foundations, has completely missed the meaning and the power of this verse. The founding fathers missed this, not seeing people with brown skin as fully human, and this dehumanization led to this nation’s near collapse under the bloody banner of Civil War. Why do Confederate flags still fly over southern American cities? It is a brazen disregard for our all people who suffered in the country because of the color of their skin.

Rabbi Held concluded: “Two of this great nation’s most unforgivable forms of madness met [on Wednesday]: our obsession with guns and our dehumanization of African-Americans. There are entire industries dedicated to denying that either of these problems is real– and to attacking those willing to speak the unvarnished, unwelcome truth. Let us find the courage to defy them, once and for all. At a certain point we lose any credibility in declaring (feigning?) shock; we have long past that point. If not now, then for the love of God when?”

Given all of this, I think that there is something that we can do. Call someone who is of a different skin color, and invite them to a cup of coffee. There is no better way to connect to someone than to sit down over a hot cup of something and have a conversation with them. Some basic questions can get the conversation going: What keeps you up a night? What gets you up in the morning? They talk. You listen. You talk. They listen. In my mind I call it: One Humanity. One Cup. If every person of one color did this with someone of another skin color in Syracuse, that would go a long way towards creating connections, understanding and humanizing each other.

Parshat Hukkat: Water – It’s for Life

There are some days when the synchronicity between isolated events cannot be ignored. A few years back I spent two days  at a workshop whose aim was to begin development of a “Judaism and the Environment” curriculum. When it came to deciding which natural resource we would focus on for this project, water was obvious choice. Almost the next day, I stumbled across an edition of National Geographic devoted exclusively to water and its use around the world. Finally, this week’s Torah portion is Hukkat, which mentions water no fewer than 22 times!

In Parshat Hukkat, water plays a central role. In the ritual of the Red Heifer, the ashes of which are the only way that one can overcome the ritual impurity that comes from contact with the dead, water both purifies the impure and paradoxically makes impure the ritually pure.

Three days after Miriam dies, the people complain about the lack of water. This connection between Miriam’s death and lack water is the source for Miriam’s well, which was one of the items created at the end of the Sixth Day of Creation. God created the well at the beginning of time. It was lost for generations, but later restored to B’nai Israel through the righteous actions of Miriam.

Later on, in Parshat Hukkat, the people’s complaining about the lack of water lead to Moses losing his temper and striking the rock to get the water to flow. This incident resulted in God not allowing Moses to enter the land of Canaan.

Before Israel gets to Canaan, they must pass through the lands of the Edomites and Amorites. Showing an early sensitivity to managing water as a resource, they promise to the Edomites and Amorites, among other things, that they “will not drink the water of a well.”

Lastly, we find a song that Israel would sing to make the well arise:\

“Come up, O well, call out to it! The well that the ministers dug; nobles of the people hewed it, through a lawgiver, with their walking sticks. And from the wilderness, a gift.” (Bamidbar 21:17-18)

One could go back to any Torah portion and find connections to water, wells, or rain. In Breisheet, one of the few things that precede Creation is the primordial water, called tehom, or the Abyss. Avraham digs wells. Jacob crosses rivers and uncovers a well. Joseph saves Egypt from a lack of water. B’nai Israel are enslaved to make mud-based bricks, and pass through the Sea of Reeds when their enslavement comes to an end. During the years of wandering, water is a major issue, since it is a scarce and precious resource in a desert. One could read the entire Torah as a narrative centered on water.

So what is the Torah telling us about water? The Torah reminds us that water is essential for life, that we must appreciate it is as a gift from God, and that we have an obligation to make sure that the water supply is healthy and accessible. Too often, we take water for granted. We can just turn on the faucet and feel confident that clean water will come gushing out. In most of the world, this is not the case. Most of the world lives like B’nai Israel did during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Water was scarce, sometimes brackish, and when there was not enough, panic would ensue. We are blessed to have clean water every day, but with that blessing comes the ability to lose appreciation for God’s gift of water. And with lack of appreciation comes abuse. The abuse of our planet’s water happens in every community, large and small, through over-consumption and pollution.

According to the American Water Works Association, the average American uses 69.3 gallons of water per day. We can reduce that amount by 30% through the installation of water conserving faucets and fixtures. This is not just a nice civic thing to do. The Torah is telling us that concern with water is a physical need that should be at the center of our spiritual lives.

Jonathan Neril, from Canfei Nesharim, compiled a list of action items that can help us with both the spiritual and physical dimensions of water:

1) Easy: Connect to the physical source of the water you drink. Go to that source and sit by it, like Jacob and Moses did. Listen to the water. Think about how most of your body is comprised of water. Try this every year or every month and see what happens.

2) Still not demanding a lot: Contemplate your monthly water bill, remembering that each drop is given to you as a gift. If you use close to 70 gallons a day, like the average person in the United States does, think about key areas where you could reduce the amount you use.

3) More involved: Connect this physical substance to its spiritual source, which is the Creator of the Universe. Before and after you drink water or any liquid, say the blessing on it. The blessing begins with the word ‘baruch,’ which is related to ‘bereicha,’ pool, since God is like an infinite pool.

4) Still more involved: Another gateway to water awareness is the Jewish ritual Netilat Yadayim, washing hands with water for purity. By using a vessel to pour water over our hands when arising in the morning and before eating bread, we can connect to the purifying potential of water.

5) For the truly committed: Take a few concrete steps toward water conservation. Install low-flow faucets and toilets. Hook up a grey water system to water your lawn with sink water. For more information and how-to, click here.

Water is one of the few substances that we need each and every day in order to live. By focusing on water as one of the ways that God gives us life each day, we can find opportunities to come closer to God, our fellow human beings and our planet each day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Andrew Pepperstone

AS A FAMILY:

  • Use the above action list to raise your family’s awareness of the role of water in our lives, how we use water, and what we can do to make sure that there is enough water for everyone.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION HUKKAT, ANSWER THESE QUESTIONS:

  1. The animal whose sacrifice is described in this week’s parashah has four main characteristics. What are they?
  2. Someone who touches a dead body becomes ritually impure. For how long? On which days does he or she purify himself?
  3. Where did Miriam die?
  4. When the people complained that there was no water, and that they would have been better off had they remained in Egypt, God gave Moses specific instructions on how to satisfy the peoples’ complaint. What did God tell Moses to do and what did he do?
  5. Because Moses showed a lack of faith in God and failed to follow God’s instructions, he was severely punished. What was the punishment?
  6. Where was Aaron buried, and what action of the people showed that they revered him?
  7. The people had to go around Edom because the King would not allow them to pass through. Once again they began to complain because of their hardships. How did God punish the people this time for their disobedience, and how was the punishment lightened?
  8. When Moses sent messengers to the King of Edom, how did he describe the relationship of Israel to Edom and on what basis?
  9. The people had to fight their way through three peoples to get to the Land. Who were they?