Tech challenges on Friday, apologies for delay. Shavua Tov 🙂
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Bay Area Friday afternoon rush-hour crawl, can be a very trying time for anyone, let alone a group of teens, some of them still jet-lagged, on east coast time; others exhausted from days of traveling, hiking, eating different foods, sleeping at odd hours and places, listening to me excitedly point at anything from interesting buildings to amazing trees and what not. It’s hot on the bus after the a/c died – again, but the kids are in good spirt, ask (mostly) good questions, and don’t complain.
I think of other times and other travels…
This Torah portion this week skips 40 years ahead to the end of the long desert journey. The Children of Israel complain about the lack of water (Numbers 20:3-13). There are “consequences” to Moses’ behavior there, discussed by many commentators, as this is the moment that G-d decided not to let him into the Land; but, no consequences to the complainers, who get what they’ve asked for. Then there is another incident: this time, the Children of Israel complain about the lack of bread and water, then they specify – “our soul is sick of the ‘yucky bread’” (Numbers 21:5), and this time, G-d sends fiery serpents who bite them.
Is G-d just this erratic, unpredictable Being? Is He, like any parent, just “had it”, and is “tired already”? or is these something else going on?
On the chance that there is something else going on here, let’s look at the difference between the two incidences: in the first, there was actually no water. According to the midrash, the people enjoyed the benefits of a traveling well in the merit of Miriam. Once Miriam died (20:1), there was no water. In this case, they were right to complain. However, in the second incidence, there is mana, for bread, but, it’s just not good enough. Especially since according to the tradition, the mana could taste like anything, this does not seem to be a justified complaint. Hence the punishment.
So, it turns out, we’re allowed to complain all we want, when there’s a real reason. Sure, we think it’s better not to whine and be polite and ask nicely etc, but G-d is G-d and He can handle a little kvetching. We should be able to approach Him like a parent to whom we can come anytime; like a best friend, to whom we can tell anything; like a king who can give us everything. And yet, at the same time, we have to be appreciative of what we have. “Stam” complaining, just for nothing, won’t get us anywhere and will even set us back. And where’s the line? That’s the challenge of life.
This week’s reading opens with the “Red Heifer”, a chapter (Numbers 19) that gets more peculiar the more you read it. The commentators make it worse: they explain that the strange purification sacrifice of the Red Heifer atones for the Golden Calf, as if the Heifer is the Calf’s mom and needs to clean up after it. What??
Rabbi Hirsch, looking at the Hebrew roots, helps make sense of it: egel, the word for calf, is related to igul, circle. The calf, he explains, is like someone who goes nowhere, just round and round in circles, naval gazing at himself. Para, the word for heifer, is related to pri, fruit, and lifrot, to be fruitful, to grow. toThe antidote for going in circles, heading nowhere, being busy with oneself, is to be useful, caring, creative; to go out and do good in the world, and in this way, it is its atonement.
In this way too, traveling, for me, has always been an amazing opportunity; and a very humbling experience. It means to step aside from my story, my route, my habits, my concerns, and really “see”, beyond the views, trees, mountains etc, the people; the individuals, couples, families, friends, colors, shapes, gender preferences, languages, talents, abilities, stories, lots and lots of stories. And to wonder, how we all intertwine, how we make each other’s lives better.
Shabbat Shalom from Berkeley CA.