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Hukat - Balak 5783 | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

07/03/2023 05:07:16 PM



One of my favorite rabbinic jokes is particularly appropriate for a Shabbat such as this one. I first shared it publicly ten years ago, I shared it again a few weeks ago, and I’m going to share it here this morning:

There was once a new rabbi who, in the excitement and business of moving to a new community, somehow managed to show up on his first Shabbat morning at his new shul without having prepared a sermon. He walked to shul on Shabbat morning hoping to think of something to say during Shacharit or during the haftara, but people kept approaching him to welcome him to the community and to congratulate him until he found himself on the bimah, the eyes of the entire congregation upon him, and no sermon. And at that moment, just behind the pulpit where he was standing he saw a stack of papers. And he looked a bit more closely and realized that the stack of papers were the collected sermons of the prior rabbi and on top of that stack of papers was the last sermon delivered by the prior rabbi. So he picked it up and read it. And the congregation loved the drasha! Dozens of people rushed up,  slapping him on the back and shaking his hand as he walked down from the bimah. The new rabbi could not believe his luck.

The same thing happened the following week. He was so busy arranging the books on his office bookcase and meeting members of the community he somehow found himself, once again, standing in front of the congregation with no prepared remarks. He looked down, and there, right on top of the box of papers was the next sermon that had been left behind. So he read it. And the congregation loved it and dozens of people rushed up to congratulate him and to shake his hand.

The third week, the new rabbi didn’t even pretend to plan to write a sermon. He walked up to the bimah and picked a sermon from the top of the pile behind the bimah and read it. This went on for 10 months. 

After ten months the president of the shul came to speak to the rabbi and she said to him, “your predecessor’s drashot got better over time but yours seem to be getting worse.”

Well, I have been very busy unpacking for the past two weeks. And my entire family has been amazed and touched and so impressed by the hospitality and warmth that has been extended to us. Thankfully, I have not been left to sit and contemplate and write in isolation since arriving in DC. Nonetheless, these words are my own and were not found in an unmarked file in the Ohev Sholom office.

There is a transition in the middle of our Torah portion this week which goes unmentioned and unnoticed. Only in its aftermath do we have the chance to look back and see what has occurred. 

Sefer Bamidbar, Chapter 20, right in the middle of Parashat Hukat, tells us about an event that occurred on the Israelite march to Eretz Yisrael:

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כׇּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וגו׳

And B’nei Yisrael, the entire community, came to the Wilderness of Tzin on the first month. 

The first month in the Torah is always a reference to Nissan. Sefer Bamidbar begins in the second month of the second year after the exodus from Egypt:  בְּאֶחָד֩ לַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִ֜י בַּשָּׁנָ֣ה הַשֵּׁנִ֗ית לְצֵאתָ֛ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם

In Parashat Baha’alotcha, jumps back to the first month of the second year, and so we are really left with no way to be certain about when precisely the Israelites traveled to Midbar Tzin in the beginning of Bamidbar chapter 20. Maybe the first month of the third year? If the first two months of Nissan after the exodus were momentous times, it would be logical to assume that Numbers Chapter 20 occurred in the month of Nissan of the third year.

But the fullness of the verse suggests otherwise.

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ בְנֵֽי־יִ֠שְׂרָאֵ֠ל כׇּל־הָ֨עֵדָ֤ה מִדְבַּר־צִן֙ בַּחֹ֣דֶשׁ הָֽרִאשׁ֔וֹן וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב הָעָ֖ם בְּקָדֵ֑שׁ וַתָּ֤מׇת שָׁם֙ מִרְיָ֔ם וַתִּקָּבֵ֖ר שָֽׁם׃

And the Israelites, the entire community, came to Midbar Tzin in the first month, and the people dwelled in Kadesh. And that is where Miriam died and she was buried there. 

Miriam’s death is a clue about the chronology of this verse. Without fanfare, without drawing any attention to this shift, without any explicit acknowledgment, the Torah has jumped ahead 38 years from one verse to the next and the rest of the Torah is confined to that final year, the fortieth year in the desert and the final year of Moshe’s life. The Five Books of Moses really only focus on three years in Moshe’s life, the year of the exodus and the following year in the desert take us from the first chapter of Exodus up to the end of Chapter 19 in Numbers. The Torah then tells us nothing about 38 years of wandering in the desert before sharing details about the events of the fortieth year..

Why does the Torah not acknowledge this transition? 

Maybe because the Israelites themselves did not know how to acknowledge transitions. Following the death of Miriam we are told about her burial. But there is no mention of tears nor any period of mourning observed by those who had just lost one of our prophetic leaders.. Miriam’s death is recorded as a fact. Her burial is recorded as a neutral occurrence without a single word regarding the impact of her loss, or how her death was a portend for the death of her siblings and the transition to an entirely new generation of leadership. 

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, in his early 17th century commentary Keli Yakar, explains that the failure to properly cry and mourn after the death of Miriam was a grave sin and the following verses describe a severe thirst for water which came as a punishment for the callous and disrespectful neglect of Miriam’s memory. But the failure to mourn was not only a sin, it was also a mistake.

Moshe too seems befuddled by the new generation as the curtain lifts on Bamidbar chapter 20 presenting Moshe with a new set of leadership challenges, this time from the children and grandchildren of those whom he brought out of Egypt.  The contemporary Tanakh educator Rabbi Tzvi Grumet has convincingly argued that so many of Moshe’s struggles in the final chapters of the Torah are the result of not being sufficiently sensitive to the differences between the generation that left Egypt and the Joshua generation that was ready to conquer Eretz Yisrael.

For example, at the end of Sefer Bamidbar when the tribes of Reuven and Gad request land in Transjordan that is suitable for their herds of cattle, Moshe responds in an almost hysterical way and compares them to the spies from Parashat Shelach. “You’re just like your parents!” Moshe says. But Reuven and Gad had no intention of neglecting the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, they had a legitimate request and they helped Moshe see that. 

And in our parasha, Moshe’s angry outburst against the thirst Israelites, when striking the rock to release water, שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים - listen up you rebels - can only be understood as Moshe assuming the worst possible motivations for the very natural fear of drought. The Israelites made a legitimate complaint and Moshe heard their parents’ lack of faith and repeated attempts to return to Egypt. Moshe’s ability to lead and guide and teach us was forged in the trials of the exodus and the repeated confrontations and encouragement and support for the generation that followed him out of Egypt. But starting in Bamidbar chapter 20 Moshe was responsible for a very different generation with entirely different capacities and characteristics. He stumbles, repeatedly, when dealing with that younger generation because he did not mark that transition from one type of community to another.

The failure to mourn the death of Miriam and Moshe’s failure to see the potential of the people in front of him are all iterations of the same mistake of not pausing to notice when a major transition occurs and therefore not being able to act in ways that are appropriate in the aftermath. .  

All of us here at Ohev Sholom are in the process of a transition, and our parashah teaches us that moments of transition should be noticed and acknowledged, celebrated, and mourned,  so that we can move forward  together, in a way that takes full advantage of the opportunities that we have to create something special together. We are going to celebrate this moment of transition at kiddush in a few minutes. And I hope we have many opportunities to celebrate together in the coming months. But all change entails some loss, and it’s healthy and natural to feel those moments of loss as well when elements of our communal life that we cherished shift into something different. I’m here for you in that - in whatever transition entails for you. Feelings of joy but also sadness, stories that need to be shared, cherished customs that need to be preserved, or strengthened, or revived. I’m here for you in all of it. And, I hope that you will be here for me and for my family as we navigate these transitions as well. 

The generation that conquered Eretz Yisrael, the children and grandchildren of those who left Egypt, were not categorically better people than the generation that died in the desert. But they had learned to trust themselves and they had developed confidence in their own capacity to take on challenges with the assurance that, with God’s help, and with their brothers and sisters standing aside them in solidarity, nothing could stand in their way.  

I think the same is true for all of us here. We are, each one of us, the same flawed human beings who accomplished great things and occasionally made mistakes over the past years and decades. And we have all learned a lot about ourselves during the months of the rabbinic search process. I am asking you to use what you have learned -about yourself, about your own religious and communal needs - and what you have learned about your neighbors and their needs - to help us succeed together in making this community as vibrant and impactful as possible. 

In this moment of transition for our shul, we have a chance to renew our ties to one another, to recommit to a common vision for a thriving community, devoted to Torah and Mitzvot and religious growth, while being open to the world and the glorious diversity that it contains, and take advantage of the opportunity afforded to us through being here together to accomplish something that none of us could accomplish on our own.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784