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Balak, the parasha that was a precursor to Mr. Ed, has a serious message delivered by a talking donkey — one of the three protagonists of the short story. Balak, the king of Moab, fears that the people of Israel are finally on their way to enter the promised land. He requests a regional prophet, Bilaam, to curse the people since “they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land.” While instructed by God not to go on the mission, Bilaam is lured by Balak’s flattery and financial enticement. The third protagonist is Bilaam’s talking donkey who perceives, better than the prophet himself, the presence and intent of God. The story unfolds in such a way that each time Bilaam attempts to curse the people of Israel, a blessing comes from his mouth instead.

For far too long we have cursed a group of people who should be blessed. Because of a passage in Torah that is purported to be the will of God, homosexuals – and by extension anyone who has a sexual orientation that is not that of the heterosexual majority – have been discriminated against, persecuted, assaulted, murdered and driven to suicide. This despite one core passage of Torah teaching that each human being is created in the image of God, and another that we are meant to live through practice of mitzvot.

Sadly, too many people hide their fears and prejudices behind words of Scripture, no matter what their faith. “Marriage has always been between one man and one woman” they say, even though it is clear that in both Judaism and Islam, a man can marry as many women as he can afford to support. (The rabbis only restricted this to monogamy one thousand years ago.) The definition of marriage has changed throughout the course of human development, including within religious traditions. Moreover, we live in a society with a secular, not religious, government, which should be looking after the welfare of all its citizens. It was this concept of putting the value of equality ahead of the law that led the US Supreme Court to its historic decision last week that sexual orientation shall no longer be a hurdle to marriage.

As Jews, we are moved by the words of the prophet Micah, whose teaching is read on this Shabbat. Micah teaches simply: “God has told you, human, what is good and what is required of you: to do justice, to act with lovingkindness and to walk humbly with God.”

To do justice requires providing all members of society with equal rights — a clear principle in Torah. To act with lovingkindness means to be kind and respectful to those who are different than you (as in love your neighbor like yourself). To walk humbly with God means to know that just because something is written, it is not necessarily so — one must always consider how one’s words and actions affect another divine being.

Parashat Chukat deals a lot with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, which is used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body. We then read a brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron. Her passing is followed by the people’s outcry for water. A connection between these two events is drawn by our commentators who determined that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness — “Miriam’s Well”. We then read about the death of Aaron and the people’s mourning for him for thirty days. This is really one of the saddest portions of the Torah.

What makes this portion even sadder is that we witness Moses at his weakest. The long time leader of the Israelites, the greatest teacher and prophet of our tradition, loses control of himself. As a result he is punished by God.

The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam suddenly dies. The people start complaining of their thirst to Moses and Aaron, who go to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron begin to do as they are told and they gather all the people together. But then, instead of commanding the rock as instructed, they castigate the people. They proclaim, “shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses hits the rock twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but God then takes Moses and Aaron to task for not doing exactly as instructed.

God declares their punishment: because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the people, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment. After all, this is Moses, the great leader of our people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and then continued to lead them for forty more years, molding them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After schlepping around with this contentious people for four decades, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the Promised Land? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration? Let us remember also that Moses was grieving. He had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?

Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God was dismayed that Moses denied him the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith and compliance with God’s command, something that might have been common among the people but was certainly expected of their leader. Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (2:47a) teaches, “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”

Aaron the High Priest, who witnessed the incident, was also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, then he alone would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before he did it again.

According to Maimonides, the main sin of Moses and Aaron was the contemptible language they used when they spoke to the people. Certainly all the prophets spoke to the people in harsh tones, but it was effective and deserved. But here the language is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except to satisfy his own needs. He compromised his own leadership and therefore was punished by not being allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. Moses was, indeed, human, and therefore he could only the lead the people so far.

Moses’s sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. We may feel that, under the circumstances, Moses should have received some compassion. But even at the time of his greatest vulnerability, he was held accountable for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be a paragon of faith and virtue.

We understand that Moses was human. Like all of us, grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of highest leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during the toughest of times. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.

This week we read the story of Korach and his followers, who led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron. When Korach began the rebellion against Moses, he stood up and said: “all the house of Israel is holy, every one of them, what is it that makes you think you are better than us and can lead us?”. These sentiments seem quite reasonable. Yes, we are all holy; God told us so earlier in the Torah: “kedoshim tihyu — you shall be holy because I, God, am holy”. Korach was swallowed up by the earth. So, why such a severe punishment for saying something that God has already said?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow offers in interpretation. He says that Korach’s problem was that he assumed that everyone was intrinsically holy, and that they need do nothing to nurture or develop their holiness. He believed that no matter how a person behaved – whether or not we follow God and God’s laws – is irrelevant. That we are all holy just by being human. This mistake, says Waskow, was his downfall. God does not actually say that we are all holy. God says we all can become holy — that we all have the potential, but it is still up to us to realize that potential within us. It is not enough to just be a part of the world, our actions determine how we will be; we are not all holy automatically, we must work to become the best that we can be.

Korach was looking for the quick fix – benefit without work, glory without responsibility – and he was not nurturing the potential for goodness within himself and his followers.

Korach did not make himself holy, and he was swallowed up by the earth. Like a seed, he needed to be planted in the earth so that his potential could be realized. Korach’s descendants became the priests, and many of his children wrote some of our most beautiful poetry and psalms. That was his legacy and it could also have been his future, had he accepted responsibility for his actions rather than believing that we are all deserving without any effort at all. Korach and his followers were quick to complain about the leadership, yet they offered no constructive suggestions for change; no opportunity for the leadership to address their problems. Instead they complained, it would seem, for the sake of complaining. They did not take responsibility and rather sat in the background; offering complaints, seeking glory and avoiding accountability.

But what of the others who were killed in the plague? What was their crime? We are told that those who stood up and supported Moses were spared, whereas all the vocal supporters of Korach were killed, along with those who said nothing. Again, it is an example of not taking responsibility. God is saying that even when we do not speak, that can sometimes be the strongest support of all. When we do not stand up to wrong and injustice, when we remain silent, we become complicit. When we are standing on the sidelines watching, we are involved.

So often, it is easier and more convenient to drive on by. Not to stop and help, but rather to stay in our own sheltered worlds — as so many did in the face of Korach’s rebellion. Instead of standing up to Korach and defending Moses’ leadership they fell silent, not wanting to be involved. This is not the path to holiness.

Korach is looking for the easy solution; the quick path to fortune and fame. He wants to be the leader and suggests that everyone is intrinsically holy, independent of our actions and behavior. Moses and God on the other hand remind us that being holy is not easy. It is not something that just happens. Rather, it involves us in an active way; and that is why Korach was so successful. We want to believe that he has the answer; that we can have it all without consequence nor responsibility. But that is not the way of this world. Our actions do have consequences. We live with other people, and what we do affects them also. We need to get involved and to be a part of this world; to work to be as good as we can be and to be a holy people.

In our parashah this week, God instructs Moses to, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel” (Numbers 13:1–2).

Always sensitive to the language of this text, a challenging midrash focuses on the actual words of God’s command to Moses, “Send for yourself men that they may scout out the Land”. The wording, “send for yourself” suggests that God is saying, “I have already assured you that you are being led to a good and beautiful land. Included in this promise is the assurance that I you will be able to conquer the Land and establish yourself there as a nation. However, if that assurance is not enough, if you have doubts, then send scouts. If this is what you need, then go ahead and do it.” Clearly this was a concession to the human insecurities of the Israelites, not the concern of an all-powerful God.

This understanding of the text reflects one of the great theological conundrums of our religious tradition: the tension between the omnipotence of God and gift of free will with which God created humankind. As free agents, we are empowered to choose our courses of action, regardless of the foreseeable consequences (foreseeable by God, or by us). If God can see bad things ahead, does God have a responsibility to intervene? If an all-knowing and all-powerful God chooses not to intervene and allows us to proceed despite the obvious dangerous consequences of our behavior, who should be held responsible for the inevitable outcomes? Should a merciful God not intercede for the benefit of all? Should we as humans? Would we feel more secure with a more interventionist God?

The notion of free will is a highly complex concept. Our tradition maintains that the God-given human freedom to choose between good and evil is a divine gift. There are consequences to our choices, but the choices are ours. And, for those choices, we must take responsibility. That is how we grow and develop as human beings.

I like to view life through relationship paradigms. In families, parents are often faced with the hard question of whether to intervene to prevent a child from making a bad choice. This never changes, despite the age of the child. As children get older, we always fear the risk of infantilisation, possibly damaging the relationship as a result. We must struggle with the urge to protect our children, while recognizing that to be an adult requires making personal choices and learning to take responsibility for the consequences. Too much “Helicopter Parenting” can thwart a child’s independence and march to maturity.

For Israel, as a people just out of slavery in Egypt and experiencing freedom for the first time, God had to take them by the hand and provide for almost all of their needs. But our God is no “Helicopter God”. Our rabbis taught that God certainly has the power to intervene but chooses not to. Being human means having the freedom to choose how you wish to lead your life. That is how God created us. In our relationship with God, this is no less true than in any other significant relationship we maintain in our lives.

As instructed, Moses did send the scouts into the Land of Canaan and, as expected, they result was not so good. The scouts spoke their truth, shared their perception, and responded out of their insecurities. This was their choice. As a result they ended up wandering in the wilderness for forty years, allowing that older generation to shed their insecurities and strengthen their faith in God and themselves. It required a new generation to achieve success in the Land. Despite the fact that God could have easily brought the generation of the wilderness into the Land, they were not yet ready. The older generation had to pay the price for their decisions, but that allowed the nation as a whole to grow and develop into a people of courage and faith.

Poor Moses!” I often find myself lamenting. He was a truly remarkable man. Moses confronted the pharaoh and left a life of luxury to stand up for what he believed was right. He led a complaining, disparate group of former slaves through the harsh and unyielding desert, dealing with their problems while also talking with, and often placating, God. He had a tough life and, in this week’s parasha, it all becomes too much for him. He cries out to God; “I cannot carry these people by myself, for it is too much for me. If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather and let me see no more of my wretchedness!” (Numbers 11:14–15). Moses finally reached his limit. He could no longer shoulder the burden alone. God responds by telling him to gather seventy elders of the people to help share the trials and struggles of leadership.

Rabbi Bradley Artson notes the significance of God’s suggestion of seventy elders. He points out that the number seventy in the Torah is the number of completion, and he brings Ramban’s teaching that “the choice of seventy elders is not fortuitous, since this number includes all opinions that are possible in any given case” (Bedside Torah, p 236). So right there, in the Torah itself, is the endorsement for multiple opinions and diversity within Jewish leadership and tradition. When we open a page of the Talmud, we find a multiplicity of views. We find records of the debates of our great sages. They disagreed often and were an example of the adage: “When there are two Jews there are three opinions.”

Debate, discussion and an acknowledgment and celebration of difference are among the core values of our tradition. Rabbi Hillel and his school were praised because they taught the opinions of others alongside their own. They also gave honor, and treated with respect, the rabbis and others with whom they disagreed. They were able to make a distinction between the people and their positions and arguments. It is taught that disagreement is healthy as long as the argument is for the sake of heaven. And that is the crucial point. Diversity of opinion is welcomed, debate and discussion encouraged, provided it is carried out in a respectful and honorable way.

Unfortunately today we see too much of the opposite; people being personally attacked for views they hold; debate about certain issues being stifled and, within the Jewish community, an insistence on a uniformity of belief and practice which is an anathema to Judaism. Pluralism and diversity – healthy, respectful differences – are what bring life and dynamism to our traditions; creating an environment rich with learning, growing and spiritual fulfillment. Too often, today, we find statements of vitriol being hurled from one group to another. We don’t see people respecting the opinions of others with whom they disagree; instead we find attacks not only on the issues but on the people who hold positions which are different. As a result we are seeing less expression of views because nobody wants to be the subject of a hateful tirade or vicious character assassination. It is happening in our political arena and, tragically, in the Jewish community.

Healthy debate and discussion keep our tradition dynamic, alive and spiritually rich. From its very beginnings – from the choosing of the seventy elders – Judaism has been concerned with discussion, hearing all views, speaking and challenging one another. We have never been a people with one single unanimous voice, and we have been far richer as a result.

Rabbi Artson writes: “In the process of expressing commitment to Judaism through a celebration of Jewish diversity, we affirm the traditional Jewish characteristic of unity without uniformity, a goal established so long ago in the wilderness of Sinai” (Bedside Torah, p 237).

A colleague of mine describes this week’s parasha as being “very religious”. Parashat Naso contains very little narrative. Primarily it deals with regulations in relation to ritual and religious matters. It is true that much of the books of Exodus and Leviticus as well as sections of the other books of the Torah all deal with ritual commandments. What sets Naso apart is that the religious issues presented here relate more to matters of individual and family religious engagement rather than the collective ritual obligations of the people of Israel as a whole.

Naso begins with the assignment of families from the Tribe of Levi to specific responsibilities for the Tabernacle. The Kohatites, the Gershonites and Merarites were not included in the general census of the Israelite nation. Theirs was not to be a military function. While they would not be receiving a share of the Promised Land, the Levitical families were given an elevated religious function. They were singled out for holy service and they would be responsible for maintaining the dwelling place of the Divine Presence among the people. Each family was given a specific and distinct task, but each responsibility was essential for the functioning of the Tabernacle. From this we learn that each of us has an obligation of service to our God, our places of worship and our community. But we also learn that each of us must find our own way to serve. In the synagogue some serve through regular attendance at services and some serve by regular participation in study. Others serve by providing leadership on committees and boards and others through volunteerism and activism. All these tasks are essential and all these tasks are forms of holy service. Our faith community provides many opportunities for engagement and all are in service to God and community. You just need to find the place that is right for you.

Parashat Naso also introduces a new concept: the Nazirite vow. A Nazir is a person who takes a discretionary vow to dedicate one’s self to service to God. The period of this vow can be for a set period of time or for a lifetime, as is the case with the Judges Sampson and Samuel. There is no situation where one is obligated to become a Nazir. However, at times, in an effort to lead a more pure and holy life – a life dedicated to service to God – one might choose this kind of path. During the term of the vow, a Nazir is to abstain from alcohol and cutting of the hair (hence Sampson’s long locks) and refrain from any act that might render them ritually impure. Certainly, the path of Nazir is an extreme one and not for everybody. However, while the Torah specifically designates the Tribe of Levi for active service to God, this is not an exclusive status. The Nazirite vow makes service to God much more democratic; anyone who is inspired to make this type of commitment to divine service is welcome to do so. You don’t need to be born into the “right” family to lead a religiously devoted life.

Immediately following the details of the Nazirite vow we find the words of the oldest known biblical text and the most ancient of prayers: the Birkat Cohanim or the Priestly Benediction. We are told that this formula, found in Numbers 6:24–26, was ordained by God and transmitted to the priests by Moses for the blessing of Israel. These fifteen concise words convey the very essence of what it means to have a positive spiritual connection with our God:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God turn toward you, and grant you peace.

As the Priests raise their hands to bless the people with these words, our tradition seems to be telling us that there are, indeed, rewards that come with living a spiritual and morally upstanding life. We hear a message stating that those who link themselves with God – and the people of Israel – will be blessed. It is interesting to note that the “you” in this prayer is singular, not plural. It is directed to each individual, not the community as a whole. Each of us has the capacity to merit God’s blessings. Each of us is worthy.

As Jews, we live our life in community and we worship our God as part of a minyan. You cannot live a Jewish life in isolation. However, to engage in a meaningful spiritual life, each of us must find our own distinct place in our community, and our own personal relationship with God. Each of us is unique and special. We each have our own blessings to contribute. Otherwise, it would not have been necessary for God to create us.

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. In English the book is called Numbers, because it begins with a census. In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar: in the desert. In our tradition, we name the book of the Torah by a word which is significant from the first few sentences. In the case of Bamidbar, our ancestors clearly felt that the desert was far more significant than the counting. So, why is that?

The rabbis answer that the giving of the Torah and the Israelites’ wanderings were central to the story of our people and formative in shaping who we were to become, and that the fact that both of these events happened in the desert was extremely significant.

The Israelites found themselves in the wilderness (the “midbar”) after their escape from slavery. They were struggling to become free — to remove the shackles of their oppression in Egypt and become a community and a nation. The years in the wilderness were a time of healing. It was a time when a people who had suffered so much, learned what it meant to be masters of their own destiny. And to do that they needed to be in the midbar. The desert nurtured and protected them. It sheltered them from the storms of the city life, its pressures and its intensity. It provided them with a new outlook, and taught them important lessons which we would do well to learn.

The desert is not what it first seems — it takes time to know and understand. There is life teeming in the wilderness. There is food and water; but you have to take time to feel the silence, to hear the whispers of the wind, to find the true desert. It is the same with life and relationships. There is goodness and beauty in people, but sometimes we do not take the time to know them and see the beauty within. Sometimes we judge without looking beneath the surface. The wilderness taught the Israelites, and it teaches us, to take the time to look, to see and to feel.

The wilderness also teaches the importance of community — of being together and working as one towards a common goal. There, everyone was equal. The Israelites had to rely on one another. They had to work together to recognize each other’s strengths and abilities in order to harness them for the community. The desert taught us to be more than ourselves; it showed us the strength and beauty of community.

But more than anything else, the wilderness gave us time. Time to escape the noise and frenetic pace of life in Egypt. Time to think, to rest and to just be. Many of us are working at an unsustainable pace. We go from one activity to another without finding time for leisure, for family, for fun. We are overworked, stressed and unhappy. We have forgotten the lessons of the wilderness; we do not stop long enough to hear the silence. The Israelites heard the voice of God in the desert — it was only when they were able to stop that they could really hear. It is no accident that the letters in the word “midbar” are the same as the word “medaber”, to speak. It is in the expanse of the wilderness that we are able to hear the voice of God, and each other. The children of Israel found holiness, even in what seems to be one of the most desolate of places on earth, because they learned to look closely and see what is beneath the surface. They took the time to listen, hear and feel; and they learned the importance of caring for themselves and others. May we too learn the lessons of the midbar.

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