This summer is shaping up to be the strangest summer most of us have ever spent. Many of us continue to heed the warnings of health-care professionals with regard to social distancing, mask-wearing, and self-isolation. Others, however, here in New York and across the country, are ready to move on, despite the fact that Covid-19 doesn’t care what we think. The pandemic rages in parts of the country, showing little sign of abating anytime soon. There is no federal leadership on the issue, which complicates efforts to control the virus and re-open the economy. In the meantime, the country continues to roil around issues of racial inequity, with new (and often shocking) evidence of discrimination emerging on an almost daily basis. The Netanyahu government may be on the verge of annexing a significant portion of the West Bank, which will likely bring new violence and tension to Israel, and will certainly cause a crisis for Jews around the world. We are in for a long, hot summer.
This week’s parasha continues the saga of the Book of Numbers, in which the people repeatedly rebel and complain, challenging the authority of Moses, the priesthood of Aaron, and the entire divine project of redemption. Bamidbar/Numbers is its own long, hot summer. Our portion details the concurrent complaints of Korach, who raises a band of men to rebel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, and Datan, Aviran, and On, who rebel as a result of their impatience at being in the wilderness.
The entire parasha raises important questions about leadership, the difference between disputes “for the sake of heaven” and “not for the sake of heaven” (Pirkei Avot 5:17), and the very meaning of “holiness.” We can apply all of these questions to our current situation: are our leaders serving us in the best way possible? Are we arguing about the right things and are our disputes “for the sake of heaven?” And, related to that, how do we comport ourselves in the face of everything that we are confronting? How do we elevate ourselves?
Two miraculous events occur in our parasha, and they are entirely different in their natures: in the first, the earth suddenly opens up to swallow the rebels, sending them “down alive into Sheol, with all that belonged to them; the earth closed over them and they vanished from the midst of the congregation.” Change can come suddenly, cataclysmically, violently. The second suggests the exact opposite: in response to the challenge to Aaron’s priesthood, God instructs Moses to have one chieftain from each tribe bring a staff to the Tent of Meeting, with each man’s name inscribed on his staff. Aaron’s staff, with Aaron’s name inscribed on it, would represent the tribe of Levi. God says “The staff of the man whom I choose shall sprout…” The next day, Moses goes into the tent, and of course, “the staff of Aaron of the house of Levi had sprouted: it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.” First the sprouts, then the blossoms, then the almonds: everything in its time. Everything according to its process.
Right now, it feels like both models – cataclysm and graduality – have collided. In some areas, change is so overdue that one can hardly raise a voice against the urgency. In others, surely we need to slow down. This is always the tension. Resolution in our parasha comes from a combination of both approaches. It establishes, once and for all, a stable model of leadership that will not be challenged again and allows for Moses to eventually pass on that leadership to Joshua in a manner that will not be questioned.
Let us pray that some measure of resolution is in the offing for us too; that this confluence of streams carries us out to calm waters.
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat to you all,
Rabbi Sam Levine