By Rabbi Eric Mollo
Gathering in anger against our leaders is a tale as old as time.
Today in the United States, peaceful protests and giving voice to our displeasure are the rights of every American citizen.
According to the Torah, the Israelites also may have enjoyed similar freedoms of speech and protest, though not without the occasional consequence of being beset by fiery serpents or swallowed by the Earth. Much as today, when those among us continue to participate in protests that have previously been met with acts of violence, the potential of a perilous outcome never seemed to prevent the Israelites from constantly questioning Moses throughout their wilderness wanderings.
In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, the Israelites once again blame Moses for a lack of essential resources. As if in one great chorus, the Israelites proclaim, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
In response to their grumbling, Moses pleads with God for water, and God tells him to “order the rock to yield its water.” Instead, enraged by the protesters, Moses chooses to hit the rock to produce water instead of speaking to it. While the same result was achieved through Moses’ more forceful approach, the resulting consequence of disobeying God’s commandment meant that he would be prevented from ever setting foot in the Promised Land.
In times of transition, there is loss and, with loss, inevitably comes various stages of grief in no particular order. Eventually, we are able to acknowledge that things will never again be exactly as they always were, but someplace within the process of transition, a spark of renewed hope can manifest in ways we may have never before considered.
Some may argue that it’s our past that informs how we will transition. Others will argue that trying to predict the future will set us on the right path. Others still, perhaps those who follow the Taoist philosophy, would say that the middle path — the combination of our past experiences and our shared vision for the future — is what we should look to for guidance as we navigate waves of change.
Like Moses, Aaron, Miriam and the Israelites navigating the wilderness without a clue as to when their Promised Land will be realized, we also are living in interesting, challenging times.
It seems that our past is catching up with us again each time a new conversation about race, civil rights, gun violence, climate change, health care, etc. comes back into our public discourse. Each time they appear, it’s like we somehow believed that we had buried these issues along with some of our greatest advocates for progressive change. And yet the debates go on, and today we again find ourselves in transition as a nation. Many of us use the past as an instruction manual as best we can for how to handle each new challenge we face, while others choose to see only what’s before them, neither looking ahead or behind.
We live in interesting and challenging times. Every day we struggle with how we can make the old new again. An ancient people, Jews are well acquainted with the task of bringing the past into our present every day. Making Torah relevant, using Torah as a guide for the many hard decisions we face throughout our lives, has been the glue that continues to bond Jewish faith and culture to our world despite the innumerable losses we have suffered.
We live in interesting and challenging times, but we can’t allow ourselves to fall backward. We’re going to fall — we have fallen many times, but we learn from the falling. So when we inevitably stumble along the way, let us endeavor to always fall forward by embracing the liminality — planting our feet one in front of the other, taking step after courageous step, accepting the discomfort of change happening around us and facing our fears of an uncertain future by taking ownership of those fears.
Once we can name those fears, we can tame them by pulling from the courage of our past, keeping the faith for a better present and working for the promise of seeing ourselves, and future generations, stepping over that next high threshold toward new beginnings.
Rabbi Eric Mollo is the rabbi of Temple B’nai B’rith in Wilkes-Barre. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.