Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On Perfection and Cleanliness -- Which IS Next to Godliness

On Perfection and Cleanliness – Which IS Next to Godliness
Sermon for Parshat Chuqqat – June 18, 2010
Rabbi Steve Weisman – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

Forgive me if my words tonight are a little jumbled and confused. It isn’t just that Loren has been visiting her Dad in Florida for a couple of days, leaving me to play Rabbi mom on top of my normal duties (don’t worry – it is a scheduled visit, he is fine, and she will be back tomorrow!). Or even that I have spent today catching up from my first night of Dadhood waiting for my now 17-year-old daughter (as of this week!) to come in from a date to a midnight movie, and an 8 AM orthodontist’s appointment in which they installed a device that requires ME to play the Marquis de Sade to David, all while having to prep from home in my dual role.

It is not even overdosing on what arguably is the greatest sports week of the year – Stephen Strasburg on the cover of Sports Illustrated (oh no!), Game 7 of the NBA finals between Boston and LA (the classic rivalry) the US Open, and the start of the World Cup. But add in the historical first that occurred Tuesday night – when Solel’s mighty softball teams combined to go 4-0 in advance of our upcoming head to head face-off – tripling the 2 teams' win total for the season. Or doing so with Karl in Alaska (he will not even believe it when he gets back!)

Or even that incomprehensible feat coming on the fifth anniversary of the night I suffered my heart attack playing softball – although that could certainly have been enough all by itself. However, to be able to exactly recreate the events of 5 years ago in reverse to mark that moment – by putting myself into Tuesday night’s game in the 4th inning to replace the same shortstop I had been filling in for 5 years ago – was a gift from God, the power of which I am at a loss of words to explain! That God continued to smile by allowing me to make not one but 2 ridiculous defensive plays in that inning – and to do so without hurting myself – only reinforces how much I was NOT in control of that moment, but merely a player!

No, all of those would have been great excuses for being discombobulated tonight, but the real reason is because for once I get to preach on what for me is one of the four absolutely remarkable Torah portions (another comes next week!). Tonight, we read Chuqqat from the book of Numbers, chapters 19 thru 21. Like the equally powerful Yitro – which leads up to our receiving the 10 Commandments at Sinai, this portion is three distinct stories, each in its own chapter, each one building on the power of the one before it to bring us to a remarkable understanding.

And it starts with an inconsistency: One might recognize the name of the portion as coming from the word that means law. Yet, in truth, this portion contains no laws! Okay, technically, the first chapter, Chapter 19, which deals with the infamous and challenging Red Heifer, is dealing with a law – but it is REALLY dealing with a ritual, and the law relating to that ritual.

The Red Heifer – the perfectly pure, terribly rare cow which is specially prepared and turned into the ultimate purification agent without which the entire sacrificial system of the altar in Jerusalem could not function. The Red Heifer -- for which ultra-Orthodox scouts have been desperately scouring the world for several decades, because without it, they have no hope of bringing Messiah, who, for most of them, is their late beloved Rebbe, because the rebuilt Temple will not be able to reinstate that very same sacrificial system.

The Red Heifer, one of the most bizarre items in all of the Biblical text – for my money, even less comprehensible than Balaam’s talking donkey in next week’s portion! Let me try to summarize this simply – this cow, sacrificed and burned to create the ultimate purifying agent, must, obviously be without blemish. It must also have never pulled a yoke – never done labor. BUT, after that, all bets are off. It is taken OUTSIDE the camp for slaughter and cremation – the same treatment that is given to lepers and others whose presence in the camp risks the public hygiene of others. The priest who oversees its cremation must, afterwards, wash himself and his clothes, and change into new garments before re-entering the camp, and is still considered unclean until sunset – all the same behaviors he would undertake if he had been rendered ritually UNCLEAN. So too for the person who actually burned the heifer, and the one who gathered up the ashes afterwards so they could be utilized for their purifying purpose – anyone who touches the purifying agent in its preparation is rendered IMPURE by the contact!

Take a second to let that sink in, and recognize just HOW incongruous this whole process is! Now true, at other times we have noted that virtually every detail of the priesthood at some time in the text appears as if it were part of Superman’s Bizarro-World – looking as we expect but acting totally opposite to our expectations -- so why should this be any different? But, here is my question – when the original Red Heifer was killed to make the original purifying potion, how did the priest, the burner, and the ash gatherer purify themselves afterwards? There was no pre-existing purifying potion, so they either had to wait and purify themselves with the same entity which rendered them impure in the first place, or there had to be some other, unshared alternative available! ARRRRghhhh – and I thought I was discombobulated this Shabbat!

Okay, so let’s turn to chapter 20. Oh this is much clearer – the story of Moses striking the rock in disobedience of God’s word! GEVALT! We’ve been here before, but this one has some interesting twists and turns.

First, upon arrival in the wilderness of Zin, Miriam dies and is buried there. Our ancestors have been schlepping Joseph’s sarcophagus with them through the Wilderness, but Miriam gets buried at the spot she dies. Hmmmmm. But wait, Miriam was mentioned by name. Only happens a handful of times in the text – for all the importance placed on her character – and every time she is named, something happens to the water supply. EVERY TIME! Coincidence!? I think not, especially when you realize her name – Miryam – is a play on the words mar and yam – bitter water!

Just like in Exodus 17, on the eve of receiving the Commandments at Sinai, the people are complaining bitterly about the impotable water. Moses takes Aaron to talk with God, who commands them to take Moses’s rod – just as in Exodus 17. But here the story changes – and the results are catastrophic.

In Exodus 17, the relatively young (80 years old) Moses, to impress the generation that had literally just been saved from servitude in Egypt, is told to STRIKE the rock to bring forth drinking water for the people. And he does so. Here, 40 years later, a much older Moses is talking to the next generation – the one that is emerging now that their parents who knew servitude are dying off, the one that will merit to enter the Promised Land. This time, to impress THIS generation, God tells Moses and Aaron not to strike the rock, but to SPEAK to it publicly, and ask it to give off water.

Moses, himself having a bad day, strikes the rock instead. Water still comes out, just like before. But because they did not do exactly as God ordered, even though they DID follow instructions God had given in the same circumstance previously, and the place was given exactly the same name as was given in Exodus 17(!), both Moses and Aaron are condemned to die without entering the Promised Land. Aaron is dead by the end of the chapter; Moses doesn’t die until the end of the next book! Besides the obvious textual challenges here, most of us modern readers walk away shaking our heads at the imbalance in the punishments for what does not strike most of us to be a capital offense!

The remainder of the portion deals with 3 separate instances in which the Israelites attempted to pass through neighboring kingdoms peacefully, only to be rebuffed in all 3 cases. All of which led to unnecessary battles, all won by our ancestors who fought with God on their side on these occasions. On the surface, at last we have something simple and obvious.

However, 35 years ago, at one of our URJ camps, one of my students got up to do the D’var Torah on this portion for the kids and the camp. He could’ve picked the red heifer, or striking the rock, and done amazing things with either. Not this kid – he was too funny, too clever, too creative. And what he did completely changed how I viewed the end of this portion forever. Here is how he began:

Imagine it is a quiet Sunday morning, you are sitting on your back porch, drinking a leisurely cup of coffee, reading the morning paper. Suddenly, there is a knock at your front door. An old, scraggly guy, walking with a walking stick, and covered with what seems like 40 years of dirt and dust, smiles at you and says, “Hi. My name is Moses. God is taking us to the Promised Land. Do you mind if I, and my 600,000 close friends, pass through your back yard to get there? Thanks. Oh, and can we use the restrooms as we pass through?”

When we all stopped rolling on the floor in laughter, we realized – the only logical answer was NO. What had, a minute earlier, seemed like an easy story to explain why God wanted these peoples punished, now, suddenly, was as difficult to accept as the other two with which it was paired in this portion!

So what are we modern readers to do? 3 stories – each of them terribly difficult to accept in the form in which we receive it – lumped together in a single portion. How do we retain our faith in a text tradition that includes this material? What possible valuable lessons can we learn that will make our lives today better?

And then it hit me – in the midst of this cornucopia of sports goodies, at the same moment our elected leaders are still failing to solve any of the significant issues which cried out for change during the last election cycle. The President FINALLY takes control of the Gulf fiasco publicly, and his enemies accuse him of using the tragedy to push his environmental and alternative energy agenda. This guy – the leader of our country -- can do nothing right in the eyes of too many, and nothing he does can be right in the eyes of his enemies, who seem to have forgotten that the office is entitled to respect no matter what.

Maybe we have had our attention deflected by the spectacle of wondering about Tiger Wood’s return to greatness to enjoy the natural beauty of the Monterrey Peninsula, and marvel at the ability to make a golf course SO difficult that NONE of the world’s best can tame it. Maybe we are so stunned and aggravated by the ineptitude of a referee from Mali which might be the difference between the US moving on in the World Cup or not, that we have lost sight of both the incredibly sublime physical gifts being displayed by all of the players (even a British goalkeeper!) in this showcase, or how even the United States has now caught on and joined solidly into the closest thing we Earthlings have to a unifying ritual (certainly this does it better than the Olympics!). Maybe we were too busy lamenting the spectacle without substance that was the NBA Finals – where even a marquee Game 7 between the iconic foes became an exhibition of poor offense and thug defense, the victory overtaken all too quickly by the personal celebration of a single bit player who just a couple of years ago was suspended for a season for going into the stands and punching a fan during a game, to think about how teamwork overcame individual effort to create victory in the one team sport MOST glorified for its individual accomplishments.

Or, on the flip side, maybe we are still so bedazzled by the wonder of what Stephen Strasburg already is, and the fantasy of what he could become at any time, that we have not yet realized that the rest of this team is pretty descent, and that the culture around the Washington Nationals has changed, and elevated the status of the entire city.

In other words, if we are normal, we have let ourselves miss the real stories, the one with a moral and a value, in each of these recent events. Our elected leaders continue to deserve scorn, for doing exactly the same thing, over and over again.

But, isn’t that EXACTLY what we are doing with these Biblical stories – getting lost in the outrageous details, and missing the bigger more important picture?! What matters is that there IS a purifying agent, so being rendered impure is not a permanent state, and one can come back into the full life of the community – IF ONE FOLLOWS THE RULES FOR DOING SO! What matters is not that Moses' punishment seemed unjustified, or even that beating the rock worked, and was the method that worked before, but rather that two great leaders, by their own actions, demonstrated that they were no longer fully fit to lead the people to God – a role which leaves far less room for error than most. What matters is not that God is fighting on our side, but that even when God is, others have certain inalienable rights that even we cannot take away from them, chief among them is the right to be comfortable and safe in our own -- their own -- homes.

And so, although sometimes we MIGHT do a better job teaching these lessons with negative examples than positive ones, it doesn’t change the lessons. We must all strive for perfection in all we do – not with the intent of succeeding, because no one is perfect except God, but rather with the intent of doing the best we can, rather than giving up because our quest is unattainable. We must all strive for purity of deeds – not for our own public aggrandizement, but for the sake of those with whom we come in contact, and their protection and elevation. Because the minute we can no longer depend on someone else to do all that they can, the minute we give anyone reason to doubt us, then our entire system breaks down into chaos – every bit as much as the chaos flowing out of that struck stone.

Moses may have committed an understandable and small mistake in not following directions when they changed for a new circumstance. But, as our text makes clear, the BIG problem was that in doing so, he failed to take the opportunity to remind the people of God’ glory and might in a more peaceful and appropriate way for their experience, consistent with the role they were being groomed for. Instead of helping to reinforce their faith in God and Moses and each other, he lowered everyone’s expectations. And that was the unforgiveable. I think! KYR

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