By Rabbi Kevin Bernstein
This week’s Torah portion, Chukat, begins with an explanation of a chok, a law. Laws are one of the ways our Torah teaches us how to behave. Another is by example of the behavior of our ancestors. Between the lines of this parshah, we find a third, more subtle, way that we learn.
Chukat begins two years after the exit from Egypt and ends as the Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land. We are reminded that the entire generation of Israelites who experienced slavery will not enter the land of Israel, Moses included.
The seemingly harsh decree forbidding Moses’ entry into the Promised Land appears less harsh when one considers that God’s plan was to allow entry into the land only to those Israelites who had not experienced or witnessed slavery in Egypt.
Even though the Israelites had not experienced slavery for the 40 previous years, God felt it necessary to allow the Jewish people to “detoxify.” This was not punishment (God forbid), but rather a desire to begin anew with those who had not been “poisoned” by the slavery experience. The first pioneers in the land of Israel would be a generation free from this emotional oppression.
This is a unique strategy that God uses to mold or engineer the behavior of an entire, new generation. God’s strategy points out how we change communally through emotional evolution — collective growth over time. This is most apparent looking back on the past.
For example …
As a 40-year-old parent in the early 2000s, I expended much parental energy educating and raising my children in such a way that they would not be homophobic. My wife and I actively supported gay and lesbian rights, and did our child-rearing best to avoid hinting or suggesting with which gender our kids should partner.
In light of those efforts, it was a revelation for me to see the natural ease with which my children’s generation accepted gay rights — in fact, often expressed by them as a “duh!” or “so what?” moment. In this case, a new generation (theirs) was liberated, by “parental shield,” from much of the homophobia that had oppressed an older generation (mine). This new generation needed mostly this liberation and, perhaps less so, our active teaching — telling them what was right or wrong.
The speed with which our society embraced marriage equality and gay and lesbian rights shows how powerful the effect of God’s strategy can be. Greater freedom from the oppression of homophobia had a more powerful effect on this new generation than all of my active teaching.
Not that I would do anything differently. It is important to remember that active teaching, and generational evolutionary change, do not replace one another — rather they are synergistic.
Though Parshat Chukat is named for the laws, which are certainly active teaching, between the lines of the parshah, we are reminded of God’s other pedagogic strategy — waiting for a generation to mature, or turn over. Communities of human beings grow through both processes. Here are two present/future challenges, for which we will need both processes.
The active learning and teaching around the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is at unprecedented high levels, with many courageous woman telling (and too few courageous men admitting) their stories, emphasizing what many of us have known for a long time about the frequency of sexual harassment in our society and, indeed, in our own community.
However, there is still a generation (me included) who grew up before only “yes means yes,” which was after “yes means yes,” which was after “no means no.” My generation was raised with too much TV and too many movies that justified and normalized behaviors that we now understand as somewhere between criminal and contemptible.
While my generation’s attitudes are certainly an obstacle, God’s strategy should remind us that “detoxification” of our society will take time. And perhaps, like God’s strategy, we will only greatly improve when, well, when my generation is gone, and a new generation continues, more completely liberated from these attitudes in their hearts and minds.
Finally, something very close to home and my heart as a Zionist and proud citizen of the state of Israel, is another evolutionary change that Jews on both sides of the Atlantic will need to undergo. Call it the liberation of Zionism.
My and previous generations of Jews need to become less oppressed by our fear that the entire world is out to kill us (albeit understandably learned, and never to be completely forgotten) and less oppressed by our fear of admitting that as great things were done by and for ourselves (creating, building and defending Israel), unfair consequential things happened to others.
Perhaps liberation from these oppressive fears will give us greater courage to move forward to create an even more democratic Jewish state.
May the lessons we learn from our Torah and heritage, both directly from what we find in our texts, and indirectly from what lies between the lines, help us to make our lives more meaningful, and the world more just. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Kevin Bernstein is the education director at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, a Baal Tefilah for Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park and a mohel in our community. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.