It Is Time To Face Our Plagues Directly - Hukkat 2019
I want to talk to you about death. There is a great deal of death in this week’s portion. The red heifer is killed, Miriam dies, Aaron dies, Moses’ hope of going to the promised land dies, there are battles with the Canaanites and while the Torah doesn’t tell us about deaths, it was a battle after all. The Israelites complain and snakes appear and bite the people, there is more death, the Amorites ambush the Israelites, Og, king of Bashan attacks the people. While we again don’t hear about death in those battles, I’m sure folks died.
Whew, that is a lot of death. After all of this, the people arrive at the edge of the Jordan.
We’re not going to talk about all of it, but I want to highlight two of the circumstances from the Torah.
First, we get the story of Aaron’s death. We’re introduced to it by the use of this sentence:
וַיִּסְעוּ מִקָּדֵשׁ וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל־הָעֵדָה הֹר הָהָר׃
Setting out from Kadesh, the Israelites arrived, as a whole community, at Mount Hor.
The Midrash highlights the words, Kol HaEdah, the whole community, or all of the people. The Midrash asks, Mahu Kol HaEdah? What does this phrase mean?
The Midrash teaches this is the entire community, the community that will enter the land for those who left Egypt had died. And then it connects it to a phrase in Deuteronomy.
וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם׃
Meaning: And you all, who hold fast to the LORD your God, you are all alive today.
This sentence might sound familiar to you, as we also say it in response to someone being called to the Torah for the first Aliyah.
So, intimately, our Torah portion today is, through the Midrash, a part of our weekly lives.
We’re told, the entire people are effectively escorting Aaron to his death, as a community, who they themselves will make it to the promised land. They are the ones who will, by pushing aside complaining, have faith, who continue to push forward, they are the ones who will make it.
And we, as we climb the ladder of spiritual heights during the service, from Birkot HaShachar, to Pesukei D’zimra, through Shacharit, until this moment….
...we invoke these people. These steadfast, intentional, forward-thinking people. For it is they or at least some of them, who make it to the promised land.
But we’re still left with the question, why these people? And why is the Midrash telling us that they make it across to the promised land?
Next, I want to pay attention to the story with the snakes. The entire story is six verses, so I’m just going to read it. It is chapter 21, verses 4-9. We start, just as we did before, with the people setting out.
“They set out from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to skirt the land of Edom. But the people grew impatient on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.”
The LORD sent fiery serpents against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you. Intercede with the LORD to take away the serpents from us!” And Moses interceded for the people.
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery figure and mount it on a standard. And if anyone who is bitten looks at it, he shall recover.” Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.”
First of all, this story is fairly strange to start with. The people complain God punishes them with snakes, of all things. Next, God tells Moses to make a copper snake, and those who see it will be healed.
Again, we’re confronted with death. Snakes are biting people and the Torah tells us, many died. We’re talking about a crisis here!
One question we have to resolve is, why is this the solution to the problem? And what does this tell us today? Should we be building statues of our largest problems?
Before I answer those questions, I want to tell you about what I did on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, Rabbi Adelson and I were invited to participate in an important meeting.
This meeting was convened, for the first time, of a selection of African American and Jewish leaders to try and bridge a gap that currently exists in our communities.
You see, after the Shooting, our community received a great deal of attention. Daily articles, national attention, synagogues and communities around the country and the world held us in their thoughts and in their actions. And rightfully so, this tragedy has national impact.
And, in the African American communities, nationally and here in Pittsburgh, there is violence that does not receive the attention it deserves. Barely on the local scene and certainly not reaching the national level. This frustration is real, it is justified, and we sat together at this meeting so that we can turn what might become resentment into something good.
At this meeting, we had the opportunity to sit amongst a group of leaders and listen to some important stories, to hold space together, to get proximate, to look each other in the eyes and listen, really listen.
I want to share a few short stories that I heard that day.
I want to tell you about Richard. Richard is the team leader of the South Pittsburgh Peacemakers, part of the South Pittsburgh Coalition for Peace. A first Iraq war veteran, he targets gang members, shooters, and violent offenders, in partnership with the Group Violence Intervention Initiative (GVI), a part of the City of Pittsburgh.
This man has seven people living out of his home who have nowhere else to go. He is on call 24 hours a day and he intervenes personally before, after, and during violence. He was leaving our meeting early to try and stop seven people from shooting each other.
This man is out there, LITERALLY, saving lives. And, he told us, that he also fails, having attended 203 funerals as a result of his work.
I want to tell you about Maurice. Maurice is a pastor and serves as a chaplain for the South Pittsburgh Peacemakers. Working with shooters, working with children, working with those who have been injured.
He told us a story of his encounter with a 16-year-old. This child’s mother had been in prison since he was ten. Alone, he became homeless, living on the street. For his own sake, he became involved in gangs in order to survive. Maurice pleaded with him to find another way. The child responded that he was unlikely to live to 21 years old. He pointed to an 8-year-old and said to Maurice, that kid has just started being a runner for the gangs. There is no hope for me, but there is still time for that kid.
Maurice explained to us that when you live in those circumstances, at no fault of your own, then death is not as scary. It doesn’t feel like such a bad option.
Lastly, I want to tell you about Deborah. I sat beside Deborah at the table, as close as you are sitting to the person next to you. Deborah’s only son was murdered 18 years ago. And on Tuesday, the day of our meeting, it was his yartzeit. After being shot in the stairwell of a project, she explained how she had thrust herself into the work of helping other young black men from making the mistakes that her son had made. She has dedicated nearly twenty years, to working in prisons, with those on the brink of making mistakes, those on parole. She has worked tirelessly to teach them that there is a way to live life better.
And the loss of her son, the backbreaking work she has been doing, it has taken a toll on her. She pleaded with us to remember the mothers. Those who have to put the pieces back together. She told us that few, if any, call to check on her, especially on July 9th, the yartzeit of her only son. And yet, she does not stop her work.
Where does this leave us?
How does any of this connect to the deaths we see in the Torah?
Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a Spanish Talmudist, Kabbalist and biblical commentator from the 13th century, offers us an explanation.
My dear friend, Rabbi Adir Yolkut directed me to this text, and I offer you his translation of Ramban’s words. Ramban asks us an important question: why does God command Moses to make copper snakes as a resolution to the snake biting problem? Why does this work? Ramban says the following:
“It seems to me that there is a secret to the matter, for it is the way of the Torah to do everything as a “miracle inside of a miracle,” such that damage is undone with the thing that did damage, and sickness is cured with the virus…But the Holy Blessed One commanded Moses to make it for them in the likeness of a fiery snake, because this is the thing that killed them…But the principle here is that God commanded that they be healed with the very thing that causes harm, so they had to make it like that in both form and name…”
What Ramban is telling us here is that the commandment was to make a copper snake, נְחַשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת, the play on words is to teach us that the fix to the problem is in facing it. Those who looked at the snake would survive. Those who faced the problem could resolve it.
And this is where we are. We have the opportunity to be those who stand at the edge of the promised land, a land full of justice, a land full of peace. We can be those people, whose lives are saved, but only if…
Only if we face what is plaguing us directly.
For as long as we continue to turn away from the copper snake of violence and racism in our community, as long as we turn away from children being placed in cages at our border, as long as we direct all of our attention on ourselves and our own pain, our community won’t be healed. We won’t make it to the promised land.
What I learned on Tuesday is that we are not yet, כָּל־הָעֵדָה, we have not gathered together as a whole community. We are leaving behind our neighbors. We have the opportunity to do more. We can raise those voices, we can tell those stories, we can come together as partners. We can support those who are doing profoundly powerful, meaningful, and impactful work, who are like Aaron, the peacemaker, like Richard, like Maurice, and like Deborah.