(for our new and departed Beth Ami board members)
Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Let’s talk about miracles.
When we think about miracles, we tend to think of God, but in Chukkat, it is Moses who performs the miracle.
Here is the story: Miriam (Moses’ sister) was a water diviner, and for close to forty years found water for the Israelites throughout their journey through the Wilderness. This week, the Torah records her death, and immediately the Israelites become thirsty and gather against Moses and Aaron to demand water. Moses turns to God, who directs Moses to speak to a rock in God’s name, in order for God to perform a miracle and cause water to flow out from the rock.
Moses, however, still grieving for his sister and deeply frustrated with the Israelite demands, does not follow the plan. Instead, he goes to the rock and then yells to the Israelites: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Moses then smacks the rock with his staff twice and enough water for all of Israel and their flocks came forth.
In the eyes of Israel, the miracle maker was Moses, not God. For that reason, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, lest Israel began to worship him instead of God. Yet, there is a larger story at play here. Rabbi Neil Schuman, quoting Professor Richard Elliot Friedman notes:
“This is an all-important step in a gradual shift in the balance of control of miraculous phenomena in the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac perform no miracles.” God brings about miracles in Egypt and by the Red Sea, but now Moses changes a miracle. “This shift will continue in the biblical books that follow the Torah, and it is one of the central developments of the Bible: Joshua will call for the sun to stand still in the skies. By calling for a miracle on his own, without direction from God, he goes even further than Moses. Later, Samson has powers implanted in him at birth, so that he is free to use them as he wishes all his life. Later still, Elijah and Elisha use miracles for a variety of personal purposes. It appears that, starting with Moses, God is entrusting humans with ever more responsibility and control of their destiny.”
For the entirety of my rabbinate, I have considered Torah to be (at least in part) a description of God our parent and our early childhood as Israel. Babies need their parents for everything. As toddlers, we are still completely reliant on our parents, except we begin to walk on our own. As children we slowly take on more responsibility for ourselves until eventually, we have the maturity and the strength to enter adulthood, still with our parent’s help. So, in a sense, I see the forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land as the collective bar/bat mitzvah of the Jewish people. We are not done growing, but we are taking more and more responsibility for ourselves.
It is not that miracles disappear completely with the end of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Schuman reminds us of Honi the Circle Maker who forced God to bring rain in the midst of a drought, and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa – a miracle worker from the first generation of rabbis following the destruction of the Temple. He also speaks of other miraculous deeds recorded in Talmud, such as Rabbi Zeira using prayer to restore a life he had accidentally taken. Then there are the Chassidic traditions, which record miracles performed by their rebbes and saints.
Rather, Chukkat is the turning point. It is the moment the arc of our story begins to shift from outward reliance towards communal and self-reliance. God is still with us, the love of our parent never leaves us, but we are invested with the knowledge that we have agency, that through our acts we can change even that which seems unchangeable. And, more often than not, it does not require a miracle – but rather initiative and good leadership.
To our departing lay leaders: thank you for the strength, courage, compassion and love you have demonstrated through your leadership to our congregation and the Jewish people. To our incoming and continuing board members: you’ve got this. You are all blessings, you are all a little miraculous, and we are blessed because of you.
 Schuman, Neil, “The Miracle Worker,” online Torah commentary, date unknown, quoting Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29017-29032). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras