A Model For Those Who Err (All of Us)

 

After nearly 40 years of leading the people through the wilderness, Moses engages in entirely unexpected behavior on the occasion of a lack of water at Kadesh.

God tells him and Aaron to take a rod, assemble the people, order a rock to yield water to the people before their very eyes, and the water would flow.

Instead, Moses challenges the people, “listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then raises his hand, strikes the rock twice, and out comes water.

For this apparent failure to affirm Divine sanctity,  God decrees that Moses would not lead the people into the promised land.

Sages throughout time have offered explanations for this seemingly harsh penalty.

Some say that Moses had consistently been a model for the people as one who led in faith and duty to God, but, for some reason, he did not do so here.

Others go to the details of the story to see how Moses broke with God’s word – whether because of habit or anger. Moses strikes, rather than speaks to, the rock – thus, acting explicitly in a manner contrary to God’s intent.

Yet others look beneath the literal surface of the story to find deeper truth. For them, the water is symbolic of that which sustains spiritually. Moses, in this view, was no longer able to sustain the people spiritually in the manner that was required.

Whatever the explanation, we are left with the idea that Moses can no longer lead the people into the land with the duty and force and faith and mercy required of the leader.

Yet, after all this drama and what must have been great pain in the consequence for Moses personally, what strikes me most is how Moses reacts to the judgment.

In the very next verse after God issues the decree, “Moses dispatched messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom,” to move the people forward on their journey.

In other words, the Bible teaches us that there isn’t an event, even a moment, that separates God’s judgment and Moses’ fulfilling the next duty he owes God and the people.

Whatever our fate, we continue in all moments of life to owe the duty of our service to God and our community. Even after slipping and experiencing the consequence, Moses returns instantly to his post, to undertake the very next action that duty requires.  For this lesson, surely God is grateful, as are we.

A Biblical Lesson in Demagoguery

We sometimes read the Bible as if it’s simply a story from long ago. There were some strange things that happened back then, and strange people who did them.

We tend to think we live in different times. And we think we don’t have those problems today. For a variety of reasons, we think we’re somehow exempt from them.

I want to propose that God did not give us these eternal words for us to come to that conclusion, whatever faith path we choose.

Korach was a quintessential demagogue. He came from an advantaged position and wanted yet a greater position with greater power. He affiliated with the unstable and ambitious to overthrow God-serving leaders. He used the mission statement of the people as his own rallying cry, cynically to bring them to his side. And he attacked the leadership of the community when it was the most vulnerable and his chance of taking it down was the strongest.

Have we not seen this story throughout history? Yet, don’t we also perhaps too often and too easily tend to brand our political opponents as demagogues? The Biblical lesson of Korach is there, among other things, for us to be able to see the difference.

As the Bible teaches, the actions of Korach and his followers are utterly despicable to God. Korach is fundamentally out for personal gain, not what’s in the best interest of heaven. Especially when times are hard for people, God does not tolerate, nor should we, the self-seeking and ambitious pretender who preys upon our weakness to get power and lead the people away from the principles God has given to guide us.

The Jewish mystical work known as the Zohar teaches that such a person who makes the right left and the left right lays waste the world.

With God’s help, it is our duty to separate ourselves from Korach in whatever form we find him, oppose him, and defeat him.

Living as God expects is grounded in a fundamental principle: God shows us the path; and we are, under the guidance of God-devoted leaders, to follow it in order to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Building Strength Out of Weakness

I don’t think there’s a piece of Biblical text that gets such short shrift as the Book of Numbers.

Some say it’s just a bunch of complaining by an ungrateful people. Others only look at the surface and see ugliness, and wonder how in the world can this be the word of God. I want to suggest that the book deserves better.

In Numbers, (B’Midbar, in Hebrew), we find ourselves in the wilderness, physically and spiritually. We’ve been to the mountain, experienced Divine revelation, and entered into a covenant with God. But now we’re away from the mountain; we’re in the real world and on the ground.

It’s not that God is unavailable here. God is indeed near, with us, as the text says, by day and by night. But, we see ourselves as alone and anxious and independent, and, as John Milton wrote, we then tend to “trespass, Authors to ourselves.”

Last week we saw how a people can go astray, beginning with contention from the “outskirts,” that extends through the riffraff and infects the whole community.

This week we learn how leaders can be so short of spirit they can push a whole community – weak in itself – into faithlessness and an abandonment of God’s path.

We would do well first to understand that we moderns are not exempt from such weakness and that God intends this text to instruct us, too. Waywardness was not  practiced only by the ancients. It’s also our problem, and this text reveals solutions that are as valuable for us as they were for our ancestors.

We see remarkable examples of God-fearing people such as Caleb and Joshua and learn from their exemplary faith and action.

We continue to learn from Moses’ courage, steadfastness, love, and instruction.

We see and learn from God’s reactions to our waywardness. God may impose consequences, but God always seeks our return, always shows paths back, and always provides tools for us to stay in community with each other and covenant with the Divine.

We learn how to build up in strength from weakness, how to deepen our faith, how to shore up our courage, and how to live, though anxious and tempted, in ways that are both true to God’s expectations and good for us. That this book teaches us so astutely about the deepest sources of our weakness and models for us ways to become strong in its wake – this is more than enough reason for giving Numbers a much deeper look.

Pay Attention to “The Outskirts”

Unbelievably, after all God’s gifts – the redemption from Egypt, the covenant with Divine instruction, the invitation to draw near, and the blessing of forever well-being – the people complain. This is evil to God, yet it happens in the midst of God in both ancient times and ours.

In the Bible, we learn that God responds first with fire directed to the outskirts of the camp. Why there?

Some say it refers to the marginal sort, those not committed to the Way and those disenchanted with it, who started the dissension. Others note the closeness of the Hebrew for outskirts (katzei) with that for leader (katzin) and say that the leaders who didn’t calm or stop the complainers were the ones principally held accountable by God.

Perhaps there’s truth in a Divine concern about both.  Rebellion against the good and God tends to begin on the edge, but the fire grows when leaders look the other way and fail to take responsible and effective action to stop it.

Once the fire rages, it spreads to all “family groups” so that “each weeps at the entrance of his tent.” Indeed it can be so dangerous that, in its fervor, even the truly good, such as Miriam, can turn against Moses and God, and do wrong.

What does the Bible teach here about facing this horror?

First, we must understand our support comes from God. Second, we must be sure there are leaders in place in whom the spirit of God resides. Third, we and our leaders must be vigilant about what happens “on the outskirts” and assure that the fire of dissension and rebellion never be allowed to spread from there, through the riffraff, to the broader community. And, fourth, when good people, who generally elevate others to God’s Way, fail, they, properly chastised, should be welcomed back in mercy.

It’s hard in the wilderness. Teach us, God. Support us. May we lead in your Way. And when the good among us fall short may we remember Moses’ prayer, “please provide healing now.”

God’s Special Blessing

Priestly BlessingWhether in church or synagogue, we often hear this special blessing in worship in our own time. It has ancient roots in the Hebrew Bible. I fear we too often let the words pass by without savoring and being enriched by their deep and gorgeous meaning. Let’s look deeper and understand the extraordinary nature of the blessing that God gave the priests to bestow upon us.

We studied the blessings and curses at the end of Leviticus. In essence, we came to the conclusion that the language of blessings, perhaps metaphorically, yet most deeply, conveys a contentment and a strength that come from nearness to God and living in the ways of God.

“May God bless you and keep you.” God instructs Moses that the priests are to invoke God’s name on behalf of the people and through them we learn that God blesses us and guards us.

“May God shine the Divine countenance on you and be gracious to you.” The Ultimate Sovereign, in audience with us, shows us favor and gives us access to the light of the Divine face. We could see this light as the light that enlightens our thoughts and lives. It gives us the wisdom to understand God’s ways, especially in justice, righteousness, mercy, and loving kindness. And it gives us the comfort and support of God’s grace.

“May God lift up the Divine countenance toward you and grant you peace.” This could be understood as God’s brightening in the connection with us and delivering to us a sense of ever-lasting well-being.

We live in covenant with God, committed to God’s ways. God blesses us, keeps us, illuminates our way, is gracious to us, and gives us the greatest gift of all – a wholeness through companionship with the Divine that blesses us during and after all that confronts us in and after our physical lives.

 

Protect the Core

Whats CentralWe enter the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible, commonly known as Numbers, encountering, as we would expect from the title – the importance of taking a census. Yet, this book also goes by the Hebrew title, B’Midbar, which means, In the Wilderness.

When our ancestors entered the lonely, difficult world of the wilderness, indeed when we are in what for us  is wilderness, the text invites us to consider what we must do to protect ourselves, what we should hold most dear, and what we must do to be strong to go on.

The first step is to take a census for the principal purpose of organizing an army to protect and serve the community. Whether it’s for defense of the community or for our own physical or spiritual self-defense, isn’t it vital in the most important ways to number those assets that will protect and defend us from whatever attack that is leveled against us? Only by being secure and protected can we and the broader community be properly structured so that we can best support the community and the community can best support us.

And what is at the core of what we must protect at all costs? At the center of the community are the ark, the tent, and holy objects. They represent our fundamental  principles. They define who we are at our highest level and who we ideally must seek to be. They represent what matters most – our establishing sacred space to draw close to God, our living true to our covenant with the Divine, and our having the blessing of God’s nearness.

We take another census to count the Levites who will maintain and operate this sacred space. In our own lives, this may be symbolic of our seeking and numbering those elements of our being and our will that will maintain and support our souls in ways that are true to our mission. When we’re lonely, when we are tempted, when we wonder about the meaning and duty of our lives – all things that perplex us in the wilderness – what do we summon to help guide and guard our best selves to make it through?

There are lessons in these censuses in the wilderness. It is in God’s steadfast word and our covenant with God where we find our strength and direction. The hard work of counting and organizing and protecting this legacy and what’s central to its mission is essential to success in our life’s journey and what the Bible teaches us in this text.

Counting the Omer

One of the most remarkable contributions of Judaism to the world has been its unique practice of infusing sacred meaning into ancient life cycle celebrations.

A fine example of this is the way in which Jews have interpreted and lived out the command in Leviticus 23:15-16 to “count off seven weeks” between the offering of an omer of barley to the time of the first offering of wheat.

On the surface, this appears to be a transition from one agricultural festival to another, from the spring to the summer, perhaps with gratitude to God for the grains from those seasons that sustain our lives.

Such a reading has meaning and is worthy on its own.

Yet, the text has been read to mean so much more.

What is seen at this deeper level is the need to count and appreciate the days between the time when God redeemed us from Egypt and the time when God revealed the Instruction at Mt. Sinai.

In other words, in our thoughts and spirits, we are to marvel daily from the time marked as that of the miracle of God’s redeeming us to the time when the purpose of that redemption is manifested.

We are redeemed to be God’s people. We are redeemed to be in covenant with God. We are redeemed to become a kingdom of priests and holy nation in the world. We are redeemed to hear God’s Instruction and be committed to living true to it and God’s expectations of us.

That’s a lot to contemplate, to understand, and to commit to ways by which we honor and commemorate our gratitude and the Divine call.

There are so many ideas that have been generated over the centuries on how we can well count these weeks. One of the loveliest has been the daily spiritual meditations developed by Simon Jacobson and published by Chabad.org.

A general account of these meditations is set out below. And the link to the meditation for Friday night, May 20, 2016, the 28th day this year, is in the second link below.

Check it out and imagine the beauty and meaning of a 50 day journey in which one reflects on these moral aspirations and readies oneself in ways to live by them.

We marvel at the grains from the earth that sustain us from season to season. And we marvel at the life God has given us to use from season to season in a manner true to Divine purposes.
http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/277116/jewish/Introduction.htm

http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/276699/jewish/Omer-28.htm