Shabbat Greetings

The double Torah portion this week, Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9) offers us two distinct perspectives through which we may view our present circumstances, as Jews, and as Americans preparing to celebrate our nation’s 247th birthday on Tuesday. Chukat is about one central motif: death. In this portion, Miriam dies. Shortly thereafter, her younger brothers, Aaron and Moses, are also sentenced to death in the desert, and Aaron dies at the summit of Mount Hor. Moses’s actual death will wait another few months, but the condemnation of both Aaron and Moses at the bitter waters (Meribah) for underestimating God’s powers is very harsh feeling. It is striking, and hardly accidental that this portion begins with the passage of the Parah Adumah (the red heifer) process that purifies those who have been defiled by death. As a community that has survived the pandemic of the past three years, we may connect with this portion.

This perspective carries with it much truth. The sheer potency, virulence, and transmissibility of the Covid virus and its variances brought terrible suffering and disruption to humanity, and these shores, irrespective of any human effort at containment and mitigation. If nothing else, let us all be humbled by this fearsome force of nature. And yet, I believe this perspective, while necessary, and valuable, is insufficient. It is only a partial truth.

The second of the two portions, Balak, has a diametrically opposite message, the power of human agency. There are two central narratives in the text. First, we read of an Aramean sorcerer, Bilaam, who defies God and chooses to curse God’s chosen people. While God does not permit Bilaam ultimately to curse the Jews, God does not stop him. The second, much briefer narrative surrounds an incident of public immorality in the Jewish camp, at the very entrance to the tabernacle. This grievous breach of the defining standards of the Jewish camp leaves the leadership paralyzed, and unleashes a horrific plague among the people, leaving tens of thousands of dead. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, rises up and cuts down the perpetrators of this licentious act, bringing a swift end to the plague which had engulfed the camp. In so doing, he creates a new identity for himself, as he is elevated to the priesthood and given an eternal covenant of peace. As Moses Maimonides teaches us – Our choices define our spiritual destiny, our impact upon the world, and the legacy that we mortals will leave behind. In opposite ways, Bilaam and Pinchas choose who they wish to be, and it is this legacy of spiritual self determination that stands at the bedrock of Jewish theology – choose life and blessing.

On this Independence Day, we would do well to remember that our republic, if we should keep it, as Dr. Benjamin Franklin was said to have remarked at its very inception, chiefly depends on our own choices, our agency. This great exercise in self-government demands much, to this very day, of each and every person privileged to live in this land of the free. Each citizen is afforded the great privilege denied to so many billions of humans in other parts of this planet, to freely choose who will serve them in public office. And yet, this great privilege entails enormous responsibilities not required of the average citizen in other parts of the globe, to educate ourselves sufficiently regarding critical challenges to choose, and to choose judiciously. This land of liberty affords us far more discretion than is given to humans in other parts of the planet. Our behavior, and this freedom, imposes a great burden on us, to act responsibly, wisely, morally, and willingly accept sacrifices today so that we might protect ourselves, and our more vulnerable members of society.

Let us, on this Independence Day, be reminded of the true meaning of the word. In this time of national challenges, we do not merely revel in those rights which this republic confers upon us. Rather, on this Independence Day, we reflect on the responsibilities and duties that this great land requires of all of its citizens. This should be familiar to us as Jews: our Sages taught us, “There is no free person other than one who freely accepts the yoke of Torah.” We understand freedom not in the sense of freedom from obligation, but freedom to choose a life of responsibility and righteousness, which ennoble us all.