Brownies in the Wilderness

My Papa was a pretty unassuming guy. He was quiet and sweet and relatively humble. So I think he would have been pretty surprised to know that his Yahrtzeit would fall on Shabbat Chukat, and thus his death will be recalled each year along with those of Miriam and Aaron. This week, in the hazy fog of grief, I found myself reading the text of the parasha with a new perspective.
I have studied and taught many commentaries about how the episode of Moses striking the rick is connected to his grief over his sister’s death, and how the people’s rebelling over the lack of water was also connected to their loss of her. Miriam, legend tells us, was skilled in finding water in the wilderness. Without her, the people fear they will die of thirst (forgetting that it is ultimately God who provides water).
I can relate though. When I found out my Papa had died, one of the thoughts I kept having was, if Papa’s dead, who will make brownies for the shiva? (Answer: me). It didn’t occur to me that people would inundate us with baked goods (God will provide!), all I could think about was that someone had to make brownies, because there are always brownies, because Papa always makes them, so we can’t not have brownies.
So I understand the anxiety Moses and Aaron must have felt, suddenly called upon to produce water, and knowing that the person who best knew how to produce water was gone. You feel inadequate. You feel anxious and sad and angry. You forget that the water, or the brownies will be provided. You feel like you HAVE to be the one to provide them, even if you know it’s not your area of expertise.
So Moses is sad and angry and frustrated because Miriam is gone and his water producing skills aren’t as good as hers were and everyone is clamoring for water and it only makes him miss her more, so he gets mad and hits the rock. It makes perfect sense to me now (although I have to say, I managed to get some pretty decent brownies on the table, but perhaps if a mob had been clamoring for them it might have been a tougher order to fill).

Another insight.

I noticed Plaut’s commentary this week, that no period of mourning is observed for Miriam. This surely plays into the problem. Do Moses and Aaron not have a chance to “sit shiva” because the people rebel and they have to respond, or do they fail to respond effectively to the people’s grief and fear because they haven’t properly processed their own?
The latter option seems likely, and sends a powerful message to us about the importance of time-bound mourning rituals. We need those 7 days to do nothing but mourn, because in all likelihood, we will fumble anything we try do while in the haze of grief and loss. Judaism is brilliant in the rituals it provides us. 7 days, 30 days, a year … Slowly, slowly we ease back into life. We don’t get lost in our grief but we don’t hide from it either.

But this week, I feel more connected to a Moses and Aaron who may not have had the luxury of time to mourn because of the needs of their community. On Wednesday I had only an hour or two to absorb the shock of my loss before I had to head into the office. Of course I could (and probably should) have cancelled the meetings I had but it wasn’t really an option. There were things that absolutely had to get done before I left town in order for my community to be able to operate smoothly while I was away. Sure, it wouldn’t have been world-ending, but I would have felt like I was dropping the ball or leaving them in the lurch. So off to work I went. And now, only two days after burying my Papa, my rabbi-hat is right back on as I board a plane to Israel, leading the group I’m committed (and excited) to lead.
So no Shiva for me this time. No time to properly ease into or out of mourning. Mourning, it seems, got squeezed into the brief time I could carve out. And it’s not ideal, and it does compromise my ability to lead at my best, and its’s probably not the best model of self-care, but it is what it is. That’s the hand I got dealt this time and sometimes you just have to play the cards you have in your hand and make the best of it.

My Papa wouldn’t have wanted me to cancel my trip (although that was hardly an option), nor would he have wanted the shadow of grief to darken my excitement about returning to Israel. Miriam likely wouldn’t have wanted Moses and Aaron withdraw from leading the people either. She would have wanted them to do want they do best – what they were called by God to do.
I think the trick is self-awareness. Perhaps Moses and Aaron underestimated how their grief would affect their leadership. I’m going to try not to do that. It’s the best I can do at this point. If I try to push past it, then eventually I’ll hurt myself or someone else. But if I own my grief, and lead with honesty, then I think calamity can be avoided.

At least I know everyone in the group brought a water bottle with them. Not sure where we’re going to find brownies in the desert though….

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What Each Of Us Heard At Sinai

At our Tikkun Leil Shavuot tonight, we watched the videos prepared by the URJ staff and used the suggested study guides to propel us into meaningful learning and dialogue.

We found ourselves discussing the midrash that describes how each of us stood at Sinai in the moment of Revelation. The study guide asked us: “What does this mean to you (that we stood together at Sinai)? Does it make you feel more connected to God… to the people around you?”

One member of my community responded that yes, when she thought about standing at Sinai, she felt connected to Jews all over the world and to Jews throughout the ages.

Another member of the group said that this image made her angry. We all stood at Sinai, and yet today, there are Jews who do not accept those of us in the Reform (and wider non-Orthodox) community. How can it be? Do they not believe that we all stood together at Sinai? Did they not hear the part about each of us being holy? About each of us being created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s Image)?

In today’s fractured and fragmented Jewish world, the thought of standing together at Sinai is bitter-sweet. We long to feel the kinship we should share, having experienced such a moment together, and yet we are painfully divided by the way we understand what we heard, or what we think we heard in that very same moment.

When I imagine Revelation, I imagine a Divine cacophony, as each word and verse of Torah was spoken simultaneously. Though there were enough Jewish souls there for each of us to have heard and retained some of the revealed words, it would have been impossible for each of us to hear all of it. Part of how I understand the diversity of biblical commentary, midrash and interpretation, and part of how I understand the ongoing-ness of Revelation, stems from this image. Each of us brings back into the world the part of Torah we heard and retained. Each of us clings to the parts that we feel most connected to. Some of us hold up the ethical imperatives and claim, “THIS IS TORAH!” Yet others hold up the ritual mitzvot and proclaim, “THIS IS TORAH!” And sadly, while many of us would agree that both are Torah and that they need not be mutually exclusive, there are those for whom one is valued over the other. Sometimes we forget that what we heard at Sinai wasn’t necessarily all that was heard at Sinai.

How can they have stood next to us at Sinai and said  ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ (we shall do and we shall listen), and then treat us in ways that seem counter to the intention behind these words? 

This is the question that is posed by my learners.

Maybe they missed that part.  I responded. Maybe you and I were hearing, “you shall be holy, for I the Eternal Your God am Holy,” while they were hearing, “be mindful of all my mitzvot.”

We might think that they missed something important, and they might think we missed something really important.

I’ll venture to say that both notions are correct.

Even when we live our lives deeply rooted in our understanding of what God wants of us, it’s impossible for us to have retained each word of Torah, and whatever parts we’ve missed, it’s a loss and a shame. And it’s room to grow. Something to work toward. What is amazing and beautiful and awesome is that we get to come back to Sinai each year. We get to open our ears and try to hear something we missed the last time we were there.

It is awesome and it is challenging and yes, it is sometimes problematic.

But what is problematic about the diversity of the Jewish people is not that we stand at Sinai and hear different things. What is problematic, is forgetting to turn to our neighbors afterward and ask them, “What did you hear?”