D’var Torah: Parshat Hukkat – Elevate Ourselves, Elevate our Community

In simple terms, Jewish traditions aim to help us rise above some of our bad instincts and impulses, and to bring meaning to our lives. I, along with many others, have often wondered why God would create us with the impulse to do good and bad. Regardless, it is our ability to raise ourselves and each other above our destructive natural instincts that separates us from the animal world; this is a major goal of Judaism. The idea of being “Kadosh” or holy means to elevate and separate ourselves from bad behavior. It isn’t so easy to do.

This week’s portion, Hukkat, is famous for Miriam’s and Aaron’s deaths and for Moshe’s striking of the rock. Much ink has been spilled exploring why Moshe was punished so severely and barred from entering Israel for this one offense. Instead, let’s take a look at the behavior of the community of Israel in the parsha.

The Torah repeatedly illustrates that the Israelites had a very hard time showing resilience in the face of almost any setback. At the beginning of their journey, much could be pinned on the fact that they had long been slaves and probably lacked confidence in G-d and in themselves. However, at this juncture it was the generation born after the exodus that was complaining. They weren’t resilient either. Perhaps the second generation had been given everything they needed and never learned to fend for themselves. In any case, when Miriam died, the mythical well that followed the Israelite community disappeared. They complained bitterly to Moshe. God tells Moshe to speak to the rock to bring forth water. Instead, he hits the rock. It is the ensuing action by the Israelites that caught my attention this year.

When Moshe hits the rock, the water does come forth. The Torah states, “Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.” I envision quite a scene: animals and people pushing and shoving each other as they try to get to the water. I suspect the weak and infirm were shunted aside, cleanliness norms were ignored, and some people and animals may have been trampled in the chaos. Judaism says that we should feed our animals before ourselves. Yet here, the people are listed first. The Israelites cannot control themselves.

The Torah uses the word community to describe the Israelites in this story. What kind of a community was it? One where people did not care for each other; they were panicked individuals who put their own needs first. This is not how holy communities act. At camp, Danish pastries on Shabbat morning are a popular treat, and we make sure that plenty are available. Yet often I see people take three, four or even five Danishes at a time. They will even sneak from line to line so they can get more for themselves. They don’t even always eat all the Danishes. They are just scared they might not get everything they desire. They also don’t think about the people who might be coming behind them to get their first Danish.

Our tradition requires us to say blessings before and after we eat so that we take a minute to reflect on our good fortune and remind ourselves that we are not just individuals eating but rather a community looking out for one another. If we do this better, this is one way we can “elevate our summer” at Camp Ramah. Shabbat Shalom.