D’var Hukkat Balak 5780

It was not so long ago that we shared a Shabbat together, and yet so much has happened between then and now that it seems in some ways like it was a completely different time. My last Shabbat drash with you was when I was interviewing for this job on March 7th, just 119 days ago. The coronavirus was a concern to be sure but at the time we were responding with elbow bumps and extra bottles of hand sanitizer on the buffet tables for Kiddush lunch. We still had buffett tables! We didn’t know then that that Shabbat was the last Shabbat we would be meeting in person.

Now I am here as your new Rabbi Educator, but “here” doesn’t mean what it used to mean. We are together but virtually. We are in our homes looking through little windows on a screen. And we don’t know when we will be able to go back.

119 days, not so long ago and yet… Time feels different, don’t you think? It seems like there has been a jump, or a skip. A discontinuity.

Reading Bamidbar, the book of Numbers, can give us a similar feeling of temporal displacement. The book opens during the second year after the exodus the and by the end of the book the Israelites have spent a total of 40 years in the wilderness, and are finally ready to enter the land promised them.

But the middle can get very murky, it is hard to place exactly when everything occurs. According to the medieval Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra, everything in the book of Numbers either happens in year two or year 40. He places Korah’s rebellion, from last week’s parsha in the second year, while the narratives found in this week’s parsha, he says all takes place in the 40th. One week for us, 38 years for the Israelites. (Although let’s be honest there have been some weeks recently that have felt like years)

This time jump has really important implications: the people that Moses is leading in this week’s parsha and beyond are not the same people he had been leading before. The earlier generation, those born into slavery, have all died out. This is a new generation, born in the liminal space of the wilderness, the generation destined to take the land. They are not the same people, and as we will see their challenges, though similar to what has come before will require new solutions, new thinking, new paradigms.

In this week’s parsha we learn that the community was without water and they complain and quarrel with Moses and Aaron. Now if this seems familiar we can go back to Exodus 17 where there is a similar incident, although again remember with different people. In the Exodus version (which you can find on page 419 and 420 of Etz Haim), God commands Moses to pass before the people, take some of the elders, take his rod, go to the rock at Horev and strike it with the rod so water will flow from the rock. Moses does this in sight of the elders and water flowed and the people had water to drink. There was a problem and there was a solution. All good.

Now, let’s look at the incident in this week’s parsha. Numbers 20:6-13

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of Adonai appeared to them, and Adonai spoke to Moses, saying,

“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”

Moses took the rod from before Adonai, as God had commanded him.

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

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 Adonai 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.”

Unlike in the Exodus story, this doesn’t just play out before the elders, but before the whole congregation (suggesting a less hierarchical and more democratic generation than the previous). Also here Moses is supposed to speak to the rock to get water to come out, rather than hit it with the rod. The problem seems to be the same, the people are lacking water, but God is telling Moses that the solution needs to be different. And this leads us directly to our point to ponder: if Moses is supposed to speak to the rock and not strike it, why does God command him to take the rod with him?

Until this year I tended to read this as a setup, for some reason God expects this to happen and is setting Moses up to fail. But my experiences in these last few months moving, sheltering in place at my parents and then at my in-laws, starting this new job, trying to imagine what a religious school can look like—should look like during and after a pandemic—doing all of these thing under the shadow of Covid 19 has given me a new perspective. The rod, I now believe, is not a setup, it is a test –a lesson.

Remember, this is a new generation, and though their problems might seem like the problems of previous generations, they are going to require solutions that are unique for them and their time. There is a need for a new paradigm.  To get water, the slave generation needed the rod, they needed mediation through the elders: they needed something physical, hierarchical, visceral, direct. They could only connect to God when God acted in the world through miracles. This is what they needed to survive, to meet their needs, to quench their thirst, to get water.

This new generation was born free in the wilderness. For them to get water they need words. They don’t need the elders to witness for them, they can all be present together. This generation is about to enter the land and they need a different understanding of and relationship with God to be successful. God no longer provides water through overt miracles. God is now acting in the world through human speech, words that mediate the space between speaker and listener.  Unlike the paradigm of the rod the paradigm of words can work over greater distances, it is more ephemeral, more virtual. While there can be more distance with words, there is actually a need for our relationships to be stronger, for words to succeed we need to be able to talk to each other, we need a shared language so I can trust that what you are hearing is at least close to what I am saying, and visa versa. It requires us to be in real community.

So why did God ask Moses to bring the rod? I think that God was hoping Moses would pass this test—that he would speak to the rock. The people would see that Moses had the rod that symbolized the old paradigm in his hand, but not using it would teach a powerful lesson, they would know that they were now relating to God and to each other in this new way. And to truly learn this lesson we need to see the rod not being used because in the middle of a paradigm shift the old ways can still work, if imperfectly. The rod still works. Moses needs to strike the rock twice, but water does comes out and the people do drink.

To see what looks like a familiar problem and be willing to set aside the old tools and imagine a different world is scary. It requires trust, it requires faith. In this one key moment Moses did not have that trust. He did not trust that the people could change, that we could relate to God in new ways and God could do the same with us. He was stuck in old ways of thinking. And that mistake was fatal. We need to trust that we are strong enough, our tradition is strong enough. Life is dynamic, it is constantly growing, adapting, evolving, changing.

Moses was incapable of seeing the changes, he didn’t see the people in front of him but rather projected onto them the old generation of rebels and troublemakers, he saw a rock and a rod and he knew how to get water. And it worked, he got water, but by sticking to the old paradigm, by refusing or being unable to adapt, Moses was doomed to die in the dessert.

These last few months I have spent a lot of time thinking about the current situation we find ourselves in, and I feel in many ways that we are right now in a wilderness, we have left a past and are on the cusp of something new, something we can’t fully imagine yet. I have been fortunate to be in conversations with many of you as well as educators in the Jewish world and beyond who are thinking about these important issues and striving to reimagine what Jewish education will look like. This past week I was fortunate to be part of a conversation with other Bay Area educators and Dr. Jon Mitzmacher, head of the Ottawa Jewish Community School. Dr. Mitzmacher challenged us to see ourselves as not going back to school when this pandemic eventually ends but rather going forward to school, taking all of the lessons we have learned from being forced to move everything online and making sure we keep the positives from these virtual settings when we once again can meet in person.

The rabbis often compare Torah to water, and I feel so blessed to be joining this community as we work together to imagine new ways we can bring the life sustaining water of Torah to a world dying of thirst. Near the end of our reading today we see yet another way that the people get water. In Numbers, 21:16 God tells Moses

“assemble all the people that I may give them water” Then Israel Sang this song: Spring up, o well—sing to it— the well which the chieftains dug, which the nobles of the people started with maces, with their own staffs.” Now the way God brings water is completely through the actions of people gathering together. The leaders use their staffs to dig down, and the people use words of song to draw the water up. We need to assemble together, all of us—not just those that we previously saw as “the leaders.” All of us together. And to do this we need the paradigm of words: we need to speak and listen to forge a common mission. I look forward to continuing these conversations and to take that strong foundation and begin digging and singing with you all.

It is my prayer that in this time of physical distance we can find the tools to deepen our connections with God, our tradition and each other so that when it is once again safe to return to the building were we last celebrated Shabbat 119 days ago, we are not merely going back but we are going forward. “Spring Up Oh Well! Sing to It!”

Shabbat Shalom.

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