Thursday, June 28, 2012

A shrug, a Serpent and Embracing Uncertainty

Our challenge is to embrace uncertainty. There are some things we can’t understand or control that we need to accept and run with. In coming days a cancer survivor and former student of mine is heading to the London Paralympics to play wheelchair tennis, a barely imaginable dream come true. A devout Muslim Arabic friend shares his worries about what the Muslim Brotherhood will mean for Egypt. The organisation I lead is preparing to launch an on-line diversity education resource for every school in the country with events in seven cities. I trust the work of our excellent team over the last two years will pay off, but I wish I could predict exactly how it will be received.  

Beyond Logic
The unknown is a theme that runs through our reading this week of the Sidra Chukat[i], which begins with the least understandable commandment, concerning a red cow’s ashes mixed with water that spiritually cleanses one person but contaminates the one who prepares it[ii]. The name of the portion, Chukat, means a law that we cannot understand. Some would assume that the logic is absolutely clear but simply hidden from us. The Lubavitcher Rebbe goes further; “these commands have no rational explanation; (emphasis mine) moreover, they defy reason… the Divine Will has not clothed itself in the garments of rationality[iii]”.

A copper serpent and letting go
The incident with the copper snake also sits outside common sense. The people had spoken against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten bread[iv] [v]”. It seems the people craved the solid certainty of degradation of Egypt in comparison to the uncertainty of freedom in the desert and the still unseen “promised land”. (So) “God sent the venomous snakes against the people, and they bit the people, and many people of Israel died”. After the people sought forgiveness, “Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live[vi]”. The object that brought healing was symbolic of the one that brought illness[vii].

The serpent had no magical powers, when the Israelites looked at it they were also looking upward (to God) and committing their hearts to their father in heaven and they were healed[viii].  The choice of the Serpent specifically as symbol reinforces the point, as if to say “surely you realise it is not the object that is the active ingredient”, because the snake is the problem, yet it is the solution[ix].Centuries later, Elisha puts salt in the ‘bad water’ of Jericho which fixes the problem[x]. The very counter-intuitiveness of it is a lesson that there are times when we need to let go, and for believers this means to trust God.

From rigidity and domination to Persuasion and consensus building
A variation of this theme is when Moses is told a second time to make a miracle to get water from a stone, but to do it differently this time. The first time just after the exodus from Egypt Moses was told to hit the rock, now leading a new generation he was told explicitly to take his staff[xi] but to talk to the rock. Moses became very angry with the people and their complaints, and this led him to make a mistake[xii]. He hit the rock instead of talking to it. Because of this seemingly small error Moses is told he will not be the leader[xiii] to take the people into the Promised Land.

One interpretation of the problem in hitting the stone (which was previously the right thing to do) is that it was a different time, the people had changed and Moses failed to change his style accordingly[xiv]. It was appropriate for Moses to use rigidity, symbolised by hitting with a stick, as a leadership approach at the time he was leading recently freed slaves who were not yet ready for ambiguity and responsibility. For the generation that grew up free in the desert, they needed a leader whose style was one of persuasion of thinking independent people, this style would be symbolised by talking rather than striking, a much more murky process with far less control or certainty.

It is amazing to see Adam Kellerman who was diagnosed with Cancer in his right hip not long after I taught him for his Bar Mitzvah in 2003. It was an extremely difficult road, longs stints in hospital, hope, disappointments, chemo, infections, and 25 operations at the end of which he had difficulty walking and could never play his beloved soccer again. Somehow out of it all, Adam has created a stellar wheelchair tennis career[xv] and is soon heading off to the Paralympics. A scenario we would never have imagined in those difficult days. I am now keen to help him reach 500 likes on his Facebook page[xvi] (he has 359).  In Egypt, there are now promises of Coptic and female vice presidents. Who knows what will really happen there? In terms of our diversity education resource, we will make our best effort and then I need to trust teachers to make the right decision. There is much that is out of our hands, there is not much point worrying about it. It is not for us to complete the work, nor are we free to desist from it[xvii].

If the Lord will not build a house, its builders have toiled at it in vain; if the Lord will not guard a city, [its] watcher keeps his vigil in vain.
It is futile for you who rise early, who sit up late, who eat the bread of tension, Indeed the Lord will give sleep to his beloved [xviii].

[i] Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
[ii] Numbers 19:10
[iii] Schneerson, Rabbi MM, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. IV, pp. 1056-1057 as adapted{2F39F577-95B6-40DA-BFCD-81DC8BAECB5B}
[iv] referring to the Manna
[v] Numbers 21:5-6
[vi] Numbers 21:9
[vii] An explanation of the serpent offered in the Zohar is that it reminded people of the punishment like a child who sees his father’s strap if afraid and behaves (Sehlach 175)
[viii] Talmud, Mishna Rosh Hashanah 3:5
[ix] Bchor Shor
[x] Kings II, 2:19-22
[xi] Numbers 20:8
[xii] Sifre Matot 157
[xiii] I find the situation with Moses in this reading really interesting. Moses, the great leader who defied Pharaoh, bargained with God, and successfully argued with angels tragically cannot see the completion of the journey of his people from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Moses faces complaints, loses his cool, both his siblings; Miriam and Aaron die. He approaches the king of Edom requesting passage for his people through that land, but this initiative falls flat, Moses’ polite request is met with a threat about which he can do nothing. Strangely, when his people are attacked by the king of Arad, Moses seems missing in action, his name is not mentioned. Instead the people themselves make a wow and pray to God (Numbers 21:1-3) without Moses playing any role (Aviya Hacohen, Yet, despite Moses’ disappointment and bereavement he ends our reading in triumph. The Israelites sing a song of praise (Numbers 21:17) . There is a victory in a battle against Sichon the king of the Emorites. They then confront the giant Og. God tells Moses not to be afraid and again the Israelites are victorious. Moses himself is credited with personally slaying the giant (Talmud Brachot 54b)
[xvii] Pirkei Avot
[xviii] Psalm 127:1-2, my translation follows Targum, Radak and Ibn Ezra which seem to be more in line with the simple meaning of the Hebrew and the flow of the content from verse 1, Rashi, Metzudat David, Metzudat Zion and Minchat Shai render is as “so will the Lord give sustenance/pleasure in the world to come, to one who banishes sleep from his eyes to occupy himself with Torah/service of heaven”.

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