Thursday, June 26, 2014

What Does it Mean to Reach the Promised Land (or not)

This week’s portion, Hukkat, brings us, suddenly, into the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness. Miriam and Aaron die, leaving Moses alone to finish out the journey to the Promised Land.

But we all know that he does not achieve that goal. In this portion, God informs Moses that he will die before crossing the Jordan River. Like the entire generation who came out of slavery, Moses will perish in the wilderness.

This is a distressing prospect for the man who spent his entire adult life shepherding this people. Moses endured their complaints, advocated on their behalf before God, gave them hope when they were near despair, and kept the ideal of the “land of milk and honey” in their dreams, and his own. How did Moses come to this unfair fate?

In the central incident of the portion, the people complain that they have no water. Moses receives instruction to order a rock to produce water. But instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it (Hebrew: vayach). Water pours out. God condemns Moses, accusing him of lacking faith and announces that he will not enter the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:8-12)

One might argue that Moses could easily have confused the instructions, given that, when the Israelites complained at the beginning of their journey that they had no water, God ordered Moses to strike a rock to produce water. (Exodus 17:6) Others claim that Moses lost his temper.

This is not the first time Moses strikes in anger. In his first adult act, Moses struck (vayach) an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave (Exodus 2:12).

Aside from these examples, Moses manages to control his anger for forty years. In fact, he is often in the position of calming divine anger against the Israelites. This leads me to wonder, how did Moses learn to control his anger? And is there a direct correlation between striking the rock and dying in the wilderness?

In the closing passages of our portion, we have a clue to Moses’ inner life. On the last stage of their journey, the Children of Israel are traveling through enemy territory, preparing to enter the Land. Before they face the dreaded giant King Og of Bashan, God tells Moses, “Do not fear him.” (Numbers 21:34)

Yet we have no indication that Moses was afraid. Only once before has Moses admitted fear: when he killed the Egyptian taskmaster. (Exodus 2:14)

Rabbi Israel Lifshitz, a nineteenth century commentator, tells a tale that opens a window into Moses’ inner life. When Moses brought the Israelites out of Egypt, all the people of the world were amazed at this great man, Moses. One of the neighboring kings sent his greatest painter to bring back a portrait of the great leader, so that he might learn something from him.

When the painter returned with the portrait, the king invited all his wise counselors to examine the portrait and tell him the qualities of this leader. After studying the portrait, they decreed: based on this picture, we must conclude that this is a wicked, proud, envious, and obstinate man. The king grew angry and responded, “Don’t you know that this is a great man who is known all across the earth? How can you say such things?”

The king rode out to where the Israelites were camped so that he could see Moses for himself. When he arrived, he was shocked to see that Moses looked exactly like his portrait. The king went into Moses’ tent, bowed before him, and told him what the counselors had said about him.

Moses answered, “It’s true that all the faults that your wise counselors have ascribed to me are indeed part of my nature, perhaps even more than they know. But through hard work, I have overcome these faults.”

Surprisingly, Moses, who is known in the Torah as “the humblest man on earth” (Numbers 12:5), is described in this tale as “wicked, proud, envious, and obstinate.” Moreover, Moses admits to having these qualities. This audacious account reminds us that even those who appear to be the most noble and pious struggle to confront and contain their weaknesses.

Judging by our portion, Moses continued to struggle throughout his life. Though he knew and accepted his anger and fear, he could not erase them from his soul. Though his faults did not enslave him, he could not be master over them either.

Moses’ heroic inner struggle is perhaps even more meritorious than his deeds as leader of the Exodus. The question remains, is there a correlation between Moses’ actions in our portion and his destiny?

I would argue that Moses was not punished for striking a rock. Rather, he and Aaron and Miriam had been destined to die in the wilderness thirty-eight years before, when they were told “none of the men who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their fathers.” (Numbers 14:22-23)

In fact, Moses, Aaron and Miriam all outlived the slave generation. Moses received the privilege of viewing the land of Canaan from Mount Nebo before he died. Though he grew up in Egypt, he lived to see a new generation arrive, in freedom, to the banks of the Jordan.

Our lives are filled with inner struggles as we travel through the wilderness. Some of us may be privileged to see our dreams fulfilled, others may not. Moses teaches us that the greatest achievements occur within, as we face our fears and failures.

This column appeared in The Jewish Advocate on June 25 under the title, “Traveling Across the Wilderness.”

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Because it's June!

“June is bustin’ out all over” is the song rising in my heart this time of year. From Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” the song opens with the following intro that might sound familiar to New Englanders (especially after this past winter):

March went out like a lion
Awakin' up the water in the bay;
Then April cried and stepped aside,
And along came pretty little May!
May was full of promises
But she didn't keep 'em quickly enough for some
And the crowd of doubtin' Thomases
Was predictin' that the summer'd never come

But it's comin' by dawn,
We can feel it come,
You can feel it in your heart
You can see it in the ground

You can see it in the trees
You can smell it in the breeze

Look around! Look around! Look around!

Look around indeed! This song describes the jubilation that many of us feel as we finally put away our winter coats and sweaters, take out the patio furniture, get on our bikes, and enjoy the fresh breezes that smell of peonies and carry hints of ocean waves.

June seemed like the perfect time for the 2014 HBT retreat. Last year’s congregational retreat fell on Mother’s Day, a bit early for the beach. Yet it was such a huge success, that we immediately scheduled this year’s return to the Cape for the first open date we could find: June 15-17. Last year, we impinged on Mother’s Day; this year we tread on Father’s Day. In any case, we have 97 individuals registered this year, including 28 kids (ages 2 - 19). I’m looking forward to the beach, of course, and also to slowing down and spending time as a community over Shabbat meals, singing, dancing, playing and schmoozing.

Look around! Look around! Look around!
Look around and you’ll notice that some of our members who would have liked to come will not be joining us. June is a month for family events (weddings, b’nai mitzvah), graduations, and other summer activities. Not surprisingly, June is also the time for the annual Gay Pride Parade in Boston, and it falls this Saturday. This created a conflict for some individuals, and perhaps for our congregation as well.

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, this same tension was highlighted by this weekend’s conflict between the Pride Parade and the Democratic State Convention in Worcester. While some political leaders will shuttle between the two events, most people who would like to attend both will have to make a choice. As the Yiddish saying goes, “Mit eyn tokhes, ken men nit tantsn af tsvey khasenos,” or “With one behind, you can’t dance at two weddings.”

It’s a tough choice, just as it is for participants in the HBT retreat.

The lingering question, one worthy of conversation, is, how does this conflict speak to our temple’s espoused commitment to LGBT inclusion?  Should we have skipped the retreat this year if this was the only available date?  In what way can our congregation demonstrate that this conflict between dates is not a repudiation of our values? These are serious questions.

As the poet Rilke once wrote, “Those tasks that have been entrusted to us are difficult; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.”

What goes into our decision-making process for temple events? The first criterion will always be the Jewish calendar. That is our primary mission. We schedule and reschedule events around holidays and Shabbat.

In addition, we have many principles and constituencies we care about. We aspire to include as many people as possible in a way that is as welcoming as possible. Yet the retreat is not accessible for members who are aged or have disabilities. Some of our members who come regularly on Shabbat morning will have no service to attend at HBT while we are away on retreat. As a congregation that holds community as a central tenet, it is important that we remain mindful of the many constituencies in our community, and how our choices to support one may affect another.

Our choices may reflect our overall values, and they may also reflect what we feel is important for that moment. Some choices, like what fruit to eat from the lunch buffet, are fairly undemanding. Some choices, like whether to steal or whether to pay for our purchases, are straightforward. And sometimes, the choices are between two things that seem equally important.

The struggle that ensues in difficult decisions is called in the Mussar tradition, a bechira (choice) point. Alan Morinis explains (in Everyday Holiness) that the bechira-point provides an opening “where you have the greatest potential to ascend spiritually. It is important to recognize that each choice you make can be a rung on the ladder” of your spiritual life. They are opportunities to reflect on what motivates us. They have power to make us even more committed, or they can transform us.

Next year, the Pride Parade will take place on Saturday, June 13. Head’s up: we have a bar mitzvah scheduled for that morning.

Happy Pride – may the parade be joyful and may your streets be lined with love.
Happy June to all, wherever you may be this weekend! For those who will not to be at the retreat, we will miss you, we know you’ll be missing us, and we hope to see you at the next retreat.