Readers of Torah know that the reason Moshe cannot enter the Promised Land is that he disobeyed God’s directions, hitting a rock twice instead of speaking to it to gain water for the thirsty, complaining Israelites. We probably also know that the punishment does not seem to fit the crime. This servant of God has been intimate with God. He has been a conduit for supernatural miracles, led the people selflessly, argued on their behalf and brought down to them God’s word. After forty years of service to God, he is denied entry to the long promised reward of the Land because of one error in direction following? The story of Moshe’s hitting the rock and being denied entry to the Promised Land stands at the center of this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat.
Although Moshe himself never asks Why me, our commentators through the generations have offered answers to just that question. They say that Moshe diminished God’s greatness by hitting the rock twice instead of once. He claimed power for himself instead of for God; he lost his temper; he humiliated the Israelites by calling them rebels. All of the commentaries that offer answers to why Moshe received such a harsh consequence are responding to the story with the question, Why me.
Why me is a question we ask ourselves when we get bad news, are experiencing a hard time, or have lost someone dear to us. We tell ourselves, “But I am a good person. Why me?”.
There is, however, another way to consider Moshe’s story here in Hukkat, and therefore another way to consider our own difficult times. Instead of asking Why me regarding Moshe’s harsh consequence, we can look at the narrative and ask Why NOT me.
When we ask Why NOT me in the context of Hukkat, we remember that Moshe is not the only one being denied entry to the land. His own brother Aaron and sister Miriam die in this parasha, never to enter the land despite their service to God and to the people in the desert. An entire generation of former slaves will die in the desert, denied access to the land that was promised to them on the Exodus from Egypt. Instead of asking only why Moshe cannot enter the land, we ask why all of these people are denied entry to the land.
Asking Why me puts us into a place of being a victim. We get stuck in Why me. There is no answer to the question except that life is terribly unfair and we don’t deserve our situation. Asking Why NOT me opens us to a recognition of the precious nature of life. Why NOT me reminds us to be grateful for the good that is ours even in the most difficult times. Why NOT me teaches us that we are one of God’s creations together with all of the people around us. When we ask Why NOT me we remember to have faith that God knows us and remembers us. When we ask Why NOT me our hope is restored.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
No matter their age, it’s what they are. They are our children. As such, we want them to grow into self-sufficiency and independence, happiness and contentment. But a piece of us also wants to hold on to a piece of them, to keep them young and safe, and to keep us in their lives and in command.
It is the season of graduation and commencement, of endings and new beginnings. A time for celebration and tears. The changes are bittersweet for us as parents as our chests swell with pride for what we have accomplished together (because they certainly couldn’t have done it without us!) and our eyes swell with tears because we know that with each new challenge they will rely on us less.
I cried the first time I heard the song “Uf Gozal” (and the second and the third). Arik Einstein, who died this past November at the age of 73 and was known as “the voice” of Israel, wrote and recorded this song about a bird acknowledging the launching of the bird’s little ones. (I used to think the speaker was a mother bird, but now I realize it could just as easily have been the father bird remaining in the nest!)
My little birds have left the nest
Spread their wings and flew away
And I, an old bird, remained in the nest
Really hoping that everything will be alright.
I always knew the day would come
When we’d have to part
But now it came to me so suddenly
So what’s the wonder that I’m a bit concerned.
Fly, little bird
Cut through the sky
Fly to wherever you want
Just don’t forget
There’s an eagle in the sky
As the years have passed, I have felt the song has been over-used and played out (i.e., no more tears when I hear it). And what kind of Jewish-mother ending is this about looking out for the eagle in the sky?! This year, however, the song is particularly poignant. Arik has died, and that is a loss to Israel and to all who loved his music. And now, at the season of celebrating our children leaving the nest, an eagle from the sky has snatched away three of our Israeli sons. Their families suffer while communities are left praying for word of their welfare, for their safe return, and for the intervention of more powerful forces that can bring pressure to bear to secure their return. (Click here to hear the song and watch a video–the subtitles are Spanish, but you’ll get it, I promise.)
I prayed for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali today, and I will pray for them again tomorrow. I will celebrate today’s commencements, even as I say to my children time and time again: “Look both ways as you cross. Buckle up. Drive safely. Call me if you need me.” Dear God, thank you and take care of them.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, answers the question of who is truly honored in Chapter 4: “Who is honored? One who honors his fellows.” Rabbi Scheff and I were honored this past Monday night at the annual dinner of the METNY District of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. We both felt pride in being singled out and the joy of being celebrated. We were prouder still of Javier Rosenzwaig, one of five laypeople from the entire district honored as an emerging leader. We all know how much heart and soul Javier gives to the OJC and to our mission.
Yes, Rabbi Scheff and I felt honored. What we felt even more powerfully, however, was that in accepting the accolades of METNY, we were acknowledging our extraordinary OJC community.
We were honored because we honor all of you. And you are honored because of the way our synagogue continually strives to honor our neighbors, our fellow Jews in Rockland, in Israel, and the world, and all people created in the image of God.
Rabbi Scheff spoke about the partnership of Joshua and Caleb in this week’s parasha, Sh’lach L’cha. If there had been just one spy alone against the majority, would he have had the strength to stand up and say, “Let us by all means go up”? Relationships are the key to a synagogue that operates with optimism and courage. Lay leadership and clergy work together to meet the needs of the community. At the OJC, we are saying, “Let us by all means go up” every day!
I spoke about God’s command to Moses to send men to spy out the land. In that word L’cha (for yourself) lies the difference between the fear of ten spies and the vision of Joshua and Caleb. Ten men went only for themselves, with their own personal worries and concerns. They forgot that they were part of an endeavor larger than their own worldview. Joshua and Caleb might have been just as concerned as the other ten, but they remembered that their mission was God directed and the outcome was promised in advance by God. They remembered that “for yourself” is complete only when “yourself” and “others” are linked into a common commitment. At the OJC, we strive in every ritual, minyan, program and interaction to remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No less than the spies, we are on a mission directed by God.
Todah rabbah, METNY District, for this great honor.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Perhaps this is hard to believe, given that we have just passed the holiday of Shavuot and are about two weeks away from the end of the hectic end-of-schoolyear rush, but I am already looking forward to next year. New programs (just to name a few: Sunday evening multi-generational a cappella with Amichai Margolis; Conversations with Clergy that will meet once a month outside the synagogue in a home near you; an expanded Mitzvah Day format that will encompass an entire weekend; a “Good Neighbor” program that will invite our synagogue neighbors into the building to meet our clergy, staff and leadership to learn more about how the OJC serves our community) will add more opportunities for relationship building within our community and for connecting with our rich heritage. We are busily planning our calendar so you can include these experiences among the other items that fill your calendar. We know how fast our lives get filled with commitments come the fall. Perhaps, with some advance notice and planning, Jewish family time, Jewish learning, Jewish celebrating, and Jewish service can capture a few more protected time slots in our busy lives.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that, by the time September arrives, we are too caught up in our old commitments and habits to envision the possibility for modification. That is where the summer can be such a blessing. As the pace slows down just a bit, now is the ideal time to insert moments into our routine that can become indispensable for the year ahead. An exercise routine, a journal, a weekly phone call, a blessing of gratitude–now is the time for some new habits. Make them part of the rhythm of your life now, and in the year ahead they will be as protected as any other commitment you currently value.
Attend a Havdallah service once a month with your family or friends.
Visit the sanctuary for a moment of solitude and peace on a weekly basis. Go up on the bimah. Utter a personal prayer.
Old habits may die hard. New habits, however, are easily born. Won’t you give it a try?
Rabbi Craig Scheff