Friday, June 27, 2014

Speaking for God among us – Parashat Chukat – D’var Torah – June 27, 2014

         The Torah reading for this Shabbat includes a section that is pivotal for the story of the Israelites in the wilderness.  It gives us yet another reason why Moses and Aaron would not lead the Israelites into the land of Canaan.
    Most people would look at this passage and think that the result was not fair.    Earlier, in the book of Exodus, God asked Moses to strike a rock so that water would flow out of it and quench the thirst of the Israelites. 
Perhaps Moses thought that was the usual “instant spring of water” procedure – hit a divinely designated rock!
    In this case, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 20, the people were once again complaining about their thirst, their weariness and their freedom.  And this was not the generation of those who left Egypt.  It was their children – they learned well from their parents how to be expert complainers. 
    So, in the fortieth year of their wanderings, we can imagine Moses and Aaron being weary themselves – and angry.   Yes, they still had to behave like leaders.  But they had likely reached their wit’s end.
   God told them to bring the community together and to take Aaron’s rod that had recently sprouted almond blossoms after the Korach rebellion, giving it very special quality.
    Then Moses heard God give this command: “Order the rock to yield its water.”   One may wonder why they had to bring the rod if the spoken word would be the agent to bring forth a spring.   Perhaps it was a test.
    Moses said to the people as he stood by Aaron: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  Moses, known for his humility more than his patience, was not showing much patience at this particular moment.  At that instant, Moses, in his momentary zeal, raised his hand and struck the rock twice.  Water came out even though he didn’t offer the required verbal command.
    The next verse communicated a harsh sentence from God: “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm my sanctity before the Israelites, you shall not lead this congregation into the land.”  As in Exodus 17, this site was called Meribah, meaning “a place of contention.” 
    So what did Moses and Aaron do wrong?  One possibility is that there is something not mentioned here that was a very grave sin.   Some scholars have suggested that, but that would leave us with nothing to talk about. 
    Some say that it was because Moses struck the rock and didn’t order it with words to create a spring of water.  However, the water still came out, so that may not be the reason.
   Some say that it was because Moses was angry.  The rabbis said in the Talmud, “When a prophet gets angry, he or she loses the gift of prophecy.”  Other commentators were so exasperated themselves with the Israelites complaining that they forgave Moses’  frustration in this case.   So that may not be the reason.
    Many suggest that they key to the answer is in one word:  “we.”   “Shall WE get water for you out of this rock?”  was what Moses said.   Moses and Aaron, in their frustration, could be seen as inadvertently claiming that it was their human power that was providing the water, not God’s.   
    The Exodus was about having faith and trust in each other and in God.   If God created the world, God was the source of any water that might be available.   The Oxford Jewish Study Bible quotes a 14th Century BCE Egyptian inscription in a small temple in the Sinai by the side of a road, dedicated to the Pharaoh Seti: “God has made water come forth for me from the mountain.”  Giving God credit for even one small part of creation goes back a long, long way.   
   There is a lesson here for us today about the higher purposes of our lives.   The rabbis used to say, when it came to a variety of opinions coexisting, “EILU V’EILU DIVREI ELOHIM CHAYIM” – This view and that view are the words of the living God.   In other words, God encompasses all ideologies and all reality. 
   That statement suggests that all of us possess a part of the truth, but that we can only get the whole picture when we listen to each other, when we work together, when we bring our views into focus for each other and understand that there is something that is “right” about many perspectives.  
    That is one of the aspects of the Presbyterian Church USA vote last week that may have been missing for some of the commissioners in attendance.  There has been a wide variety of reactions to the vote to divest from three companies that have manufactured equipment that the Presbyterians allege is being used by Israel for security purposes in Judea and Samaria. 
It is important to consider what the real issues might be.       
      There was one of association, because the Presbyterian choice of Jewish Voice for Peace as a sole Jewish partner did not represent the greater scope of views in the Jewish community.  The Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement saw the 310-303 vote in favor of divestment as a win, even though other elements in the resolution spoke positively about Israel’s right to exist and about working with various partners for peace.  That association with BDS was a problem for many.  
     The ZIONISM UNSETTLED study guide that was developed by the Presbyterian Israel Palestine Mission Network and released a few months ago may soon be coming off the PC USA website as a document available for sale.  Some supporters of the vote last week were guided by this text.  Katherine Henderson, President of the Auburn Theological Seminary, stated with great concern that this publication is “a polemic that reduces the complex and multiple narratives of Israelis and Palestinians through a single lens: the problem of Zionism. The premise of the document appears to be that Zionism is the cause of the entire conflict in the Middle East and the root of all its problems. For its authors, Zionism functions as the original sin, from which flows all the suffering of the Palestinian people.”    That is not exactly what the rabbis had in mind about different opinions.
     In the last 50 years, many Christian denominations have followed the lead of the Catholic Church and declared that Judaism is an equal religious partner in bringing goodness and justice into the world.  Christianity has not replaced Judaism, according to these proclamations welcomed by the Jewish community.   The Presbyterian Church USA never did reach a point of affirming a similar declaration after creating a study document on the issue 30 years ago.   Now would be a good time for Presbyterians to join other Christian groups in establishing  a true partnership with Jews worldwide.
     From the experience of watching the proceedings last week, and working with and knowing members of the Presbyterian Church, what is most important is remembering that there is a higher dimension to our relationships.  There are higher truths.  There is One Creator of whom each of us is a reflection. When we deny that common link that brings us together, we tend build barriers rather than bridges.
    So in our dealings with each other, may we find ways of speaking without frustration and anger, ready to at least try to stand at the center to hear the voices expressing different words and perspectives.   May we give thanks to God who has given us great powers to gain understanding, to think deeply, to step into someone else’s shoes and views, and to remember that the spark of God in all of us can bring us together.   

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