Chukat Balak – Independence Day – Looking forward

  This 4th of July is more meaningful than ever

The ties of friendship, community, and nation are both strong and fragile at the same time.  I have been thinking a lot about our ties to one another these past few months – especially as we have, for the most part, lost the in-person connections which ties rely upon.  While technology has been a godsend – and in some cases have strengthened ties – our current realities make ties difficult to sustain.

Add to this a moment in American history where ties of community and nation have been fraying and we face a threat to our connectedness whose impact requires reflection.

This fragility of connectedness in not new.  In this morning’s Torah portion, we witness a relationship of love and loyalty between Moses and the people of Israel threatened by a moment of simmering anger that explodes.  Most of you remember the famous story of Moses’ being punished and not allowed to enter the Promised Land for striking the rock rather than talking to it. Every time I read it, I always come back to the fact that the punishment feels too harsh!

And much commentary focuses on that harsh punishment – trying to discern what Moses could have done that was so wrong that it merited such a punishment.  And it is in this examination and interpretations that we learn about ourselves and the moments in which we live. Maybe this story teaches and warns how quickly we can become disconnected with those with whom we should be united. Look carefully at the details of the story.  In response to the people complaining about thirst, Moses replies (Numbers 20:10, p. 885) Shimu Na Ha’Morim – Listen, you rebels.  When a leader loses faith in the people – he or she can no longer lead. For all of the justified anger Moses may have felt about the people’s behavior, to use such harmful and hurtful language which essentially labels them as irredeemable and potentially fractures the relationship, is a line not to cross. We need each other on so many levels.  And that I believe is one of the messages of this 4th of July – that we as a nation have become so bitterly divided, that the ties which should bind are fraying.

How did Moses come to the point of saying something so undermining to connection?  He may have just been fed up by time after time of being attacked and ongoing rebellion.  Yet to give up on the people who he stood up for, whose lives he saved in arguing with God – did he really want to do that?  Maybe this is a story of getting so set in our attitudes that all we see is the negative, the hurt, the pain – and we no longer see the bigger picture – the connections, the good, the potential.  Rabbi Shai Held teaches that Moses has become so accustomed to the Israelites complaining, disobeying, rebelling and rejecting blessings that he can’t see when the circumstances are different. This is a key lesson: When we see people only though our anger and judgment, we close ourselves off to any other aspect of who they might be and how we might connect.  In fact the text hints that things are different in this scene than in previous episodes of rebellion.  The people complain about lacking water and God responds to the complaint without any anger.  That usually doesn’t happen! Usually God is raging, but in this case (Numbers 20:7-8) God simply instructs Moses and Aaron to provide the people with water.

Maybe Moses’ punishment is that he has become so set in his mindset, so convinced that the Israelites are capable of nothing other than needless complaining, he loses his connection with them.  Rabbi Held suggests that Moses has become so accustomed to God’s anger that he cannot see this circumstance might be different.  It is as if Moses has so internalized God’s anger, that when God does not respond with anticipated anger, he takes it on himself.

God’s punishment that Moses would not enter the land was because he lost faith in the people. They are not “rebels” as Moses calls them – they, like us have different sides to who they are.  We need to learn this lesson.  So often we lose connections as we see people only through a singular lens – often the politics and opinions they hold.  In America, we have become so angry at that those who hold different views than we do that we have lost precious connections.

Of course, passionately reject opinions and policies that you feel are wrong. Feel an urgency to create change! Yet never allow that passion to cause you to lose your connection as part of a community or a nation.  This week at the Hartman Institute, Elana Stein Hain shared the danger this divide creates: It reject nuance as we push aside different points of view that do not fully align with our own.  It shifts smart discourse into barbs.  It eats away at our interest in growth.  On this 4th of July, let’s think about what it means to truly be one nation where we are devoted to and able to sacrifice for one another.  Be inspired by Abraham Lincoln, who said: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” The message of warning about Moses disconnecting from the people, rings out as we seek to live by the better angels of our nature that Lincoln evokes.

And as we sit with this story, other truths emerge relevant to the 4th of July.  One is that we have the capacity to change and grow.  I understand Moses losing faith with the people. I confess that sometimes I despair of our capacity to truly change when it comes to the areas where we fall so short as a country. The fight for civil rights has not succeeded as it should for far too long.  The ability to look at the wrongs of our past, which continue to manifest itself today has not been done.  I have deep doubts as to whether we possess the heart and vision necessary for change.

And it at those moments, the lessons of this portion challenge me.  Have I too become so accustomed to certain behavior that I cannot see anything else?  Might this story remind me that each moment in time is different and that history moves forward with small and large changes that must be seen.  God saw what Moses did not – that the moment was different – the people were worthy of loyalty and belief in them.  I need to remember that this moment can be different.  The ideals of equality, freedom and liberty articulated in our founding which have not been realized are being confronted in a different way, with a different spirt and in larger numbers. Let this 4th of July be a celebration of the ideals upon which America was founded, while simultaneously acknowledging where we fell short and continue to fall short.  Let this 4th of July be a confrontation with the painful truths of our past so that we can create a truly different future of liberty and justice for all.

This 4th of July is more meaningful than ever because we are humbly and honestly grappling with the past in ways we have not seen before. This year the 4th of July calls for us to celebrate America as a kind, accepting, caring, free country – truly a country of dreams realized; and at the same time, we embrace the goodness yet to be realized.  I close with the words of Alexander Hamilton when he responds to George Washington’s expression of deep regret over a failure in his leadership. Hamilton said:

I know that greatness lies in you

But remember from here on in

History has its eyes on you

History indeed has its eyes on us.  Shabbat Shalom and Happy 4th of July.