In commenting on Hukkat, this week’s Torah portion, I feel like, as North Suburban Synagogue Beth El’s Rabbi Vernon Kurtz once joked, the rabbinical student who is given the assignment to deliver a maiden sermon before the entire seminary faculty and student body on Tazria and Metsora, which deal with leprosy and bodily excretions. Similarly, this week’s parashah contains two of the most puzzling and enigmatic passages in the Torah.
The first deals with the strange ritual of the red heifer. This is where the Israelites are instructed to take a red cow, without any blemish or defect, outside of the camp and slaughter it. As the Torah says: “Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside of the camp and slaughtered in his presence.” On the surface, there seems to be no apparent rational explanation for this unusual admonition, although I will leave it to others more daring and insightful than me to decipher the mystery of the red heifer.
The second passage, which I will address below, deals with the incident in the wilderness of Zin, when Moses strikes the rock after the Israelites bitterly complain about not having any water. The specific passage in question begins as follows: “…the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their eyes order the rock to yield its water.’” The Torah goes on to say: “Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels shall we get water for you and out of this rock? And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water…”
In reaction, God sharply rebukes Moses: “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
To me, this comes as a completely unexpected and tragic turn of events. Why is it that Moses is punished so harshly for such a seemingly minor infraction after having led the Israelite people for nearly 40 prolonged and trying years in the desert? What did Moses (and by extension Aaron) do that was so offensive to incur God’s wrath? And, why now, when he is literally standing on the border of the Holy Land?
Commentators throughout history have struggled with the severity of Moses’ punishment. Some, like Rashi, point out that Moses’ sin was that God had instructed him to speak to the rock but that instead he struck it, thereby “diminishing [God’s] miracle,” and, as such, acting in an arrogant rather than a humble manner, as he should have. Others, like Maimonides, explain that Moses’ failing was the angry and harsh way in which he addressed the Israelites: that this was inappropriate behavior of responsible leadership. Still others, from a more contemporary perspective, interpret that Moses (and, again, by extension Aaron) were not suitable for leading the younger generation in the future. They were seen as out of touch and not up to the difficult tasks of the battlefield and of nation building, which would inevitably lie ahead.
Whatever the case, these commentaries focus on various qualities necessary for being an effective leader, with the broader implication that outstanding leadership requires a certain kind of knowledge, judgment and character. This, of course, is not just a matter of biblical concern. Indeed, then, as now, there is a great hunger for inspiring and serious leaders who can help repair the broken world in which we find ourselves.
Creative and energetic leadership is certainly needed in the Jewish community to help reverse the disturbing trends contained in the 2013 Pew Report on American Jewry, which showed declining religious observance and affiliation, especially among younger adult Jews, a significant percentage of whom are intermarrying or not marrying at all – and, even when they do marry, having fewer children than necessary for maintaining Jewish population growth. The stakes of addressing this phenomenon are high because the seemingly irresistible forces of assimilation are pulling many of America’s Jews away from the Jewish tradition, which until recently has had enormous staying power. In response, Jewish leaders — both clergy and educators — need to convincingly demonstrate that Judaism still has the capacity to speak to the Jewish people in positive, compelling and meaningful ways, and to show that increasing one’s knowledge of and deeper connection to the tradition has the potential to profoundly enrich their lives.
Beyond the Jewish community, steady and thoughtful leadership is urgently needed not only to ameliorate the growing social, economic and cultural divide in America. It is also urgently needed in the international arena as well. Just take a quick mental tour around the globe. There are, to be sure, some positive developments, such as the Obama administration’s recent steps to embrace Vietnam and Japan as a way to contain China’s increasing global ambitions. But trouble spots abound. Brexit. Iran. Iraq again. Ukraine. South China Seas. North Korea. Perhaps the most vexing is the continued turmoil in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where the Assad regime has killed approximately 500,000 of its own people and where the evil forces of ISIS have been brutally unleashed.
In light of this situation, the next U.S. administration is, without question, going to face ongoing and newly erupting domestic and foreign policy challenges, which will require careful consideration, resulting in sober, measured and prudent action. With the Republican nominee Donald Trump’s continued erratic and volatile behavior, along with his hate-filled, divisive rhetoric standing in stark contrast to the kind of quality leadership envisaged in the Torah, let us hope and pray that Hillary Clinton, while not flawless herself, emerges victoriously in November’s presidential election and is able summon the courage, wisdom and fortitude to meet the perilous, complex and emotionally-charged issues confronting the United States both at home and abroad.
This is the second of two updated and revised D’varim, which were originally delivered at past Board of Directors meetings of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois. The first was Korah: Judaism and the Tour de France.