Moses loses his sister and brother in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1), and while we are told that at Aaron’s death all Israel mourned, it is astonishing to note that at Miriam’s death there is no public mourning. She dies, is buried on the spot, and then Israel complains that there is no water to drink. The rabbis associate Miriam’s death with a lack of water, explaining that as long as Miriam was alive water was available through her merit. Now that she has died there is no water. Belatedly, they realize that they had taken for granted her quiet, unruffled support during her lifetime, but instead of remembering her as the blessing she was and taking time out for a proper grieving period, they turned their grief into anger. There was no water, they complained and turn on Moses.
Moses, too, did not grieve for his sister’s death—or, at least, no mention is made of his taken time to mourn her death. Instead, the Torah let’s us know that Miriam’s death and the subsequent lack of water became an immediate concern for Moses who assumed responsibility for his people. His own emotional needs were eclipsed by the demands of Israel.
They complain again that they have been brought from Egypt to die. They could have stayed and dined on figs, pomegranates and grapes – all of which were not likely the food of slaves. No matter, these wanderers are more concerned with the foods they desire, than accepting God’s good guidance toward a promised land. The text tells us, “the people grew restive on the journey” (21:4).
Literally, the soul of the people shortened along the way. With their shortened souls, their exasperation and desperation, they were unable to sense beyond their own needs. They were too concerned with personal comfort and not enough with God’s greater plan. They complained bitterly. God sent snakes to bite them and then a remedy, a snake raised high on a stick.
We recall from Genesis that the snake represents the evil tongue that spoke deceptively. The mouths that complained bitterly enfeebled the efforts and would have wrecked the enterprise of the Jewish people to claim their homeland.
But the tongue that speaks evil is the same that can speak truth and justice. And the image of the snake, that same snake that brings poisonous attack, could also be the source of healing. And it is that same image that is the emblem of the American Medical Association.
And so we learn from this episode that the mouths that complained, that were used for destruction could also be used for constructive purposes. And the complaining, defeated people have a shortened soul.
What has happened to the soul of America and American Jews? Has it expanded to meet our greatest potential for good or has it been cut short and contracted by a people who complain for the sake of their own self-interest?
As many of you know, Samantha and I were in northern Chicago to visit with her sister and brother-in-law. Our brother-in-law owns and runs four “Once Upon” restaurants with the main one being in Highland Park. At the horrific shooting on Monday during the Independence Day parade, seven people were killed and over two dozen injured. The senior chef, Alejo Toledo, of the restaurant was at the parade with his family – his father, Nicholas Toledo was killed; his brother, his two nephews and his niece’s boyfriend were all shot and one is still in bad condition. The other person that we knew about right away, Jackie Sundheim, was connected with North Shore Congregation Israel, another person who interacted with my brother-in-law – dead.
It was a challenging week for many reasons, but I saw the community and so many outsiders coming to together to work on cooperation, obligation, relationship and justice. People were showing up for peace, justice and equality in addition to monetary support for the survivors.
The gun violence in this country has robbed us of young, beautiful lives. The people did not merely run from the street for their lives, they may a commitment to walk together to our legislative leaders for all our lives, advocating for an end to easy access to guns and controls to end gun violence. Leviticus 19 teaches us you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.
It’s difficult to see someone you love in pain. This is certainly the case for me. It hurts me to see people hurting, emotionally or physically. When one of family and their community was hurting this past week, I felt my heart sinking into my stomach or even feeling a little lightheaded. I carry their hurt with me. In addition to feeling physical pain, there is a different experience of sharing non-physical pain, the kind of pain brought on when someone’s honor is damaged or disrespected. The question explored in this week’s Torah portion is who shares that type of pain when you experience it? Is it your immediate family? Is it your circle of friends? Or could that pain possibly be shared with people who came long before us?
This week our Torah portion sends us a hopeful message, especially as we’re finally renewing relationships with people in person. The message is that we are all connected in many more ways than through either our stories or through our physical interactions. And perhaps coming to this realization that we can feel each other’s pain, see each other’s vision, and help each other achieve greatness would make our ancestors proud. May we continue to work together to heal our world.