Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Chukat

At the end of this week’s portion, Israel finds itself in a moment of “déjà vu.” Forty years earlier, they stood near Jericho and had access to the “Promised Land.” They sent spies in to investigate the land, to see if it was all that God had promised. It was; it flowed with the most pristine waters and grew the most luscious fruit and vegetables. It seemed to be too good to be true, and it made them afraid. Lacking faith, they bought into these fears and talked the whole nation into forgoing the land. They believed that giants existed who would destroy them if they tried. After all these years, the death and birth of almost two generations, and wars that ended in miraculous victories, Israel finds itself again, near Jericho and near the “Promised Land.”

Certainly, they knew that their journey would lead them back to this spot. Would they, however, be better prepared? This week’s text makes us scratch our heads a little. Along their journey, they drank from wells that miraculously popped up in even the acridest areas. They bore attacks from the Emorites, the Amalekites, and lots of other “ites.” Each time, with divine intervention, they emerged victoriously. In the middle of the desert, Israel woke up each morning to find manna awaiting them. How much more proof does a people need that God is going to take care of them?

Well, this week, the people lose faith again. Miriam passes away, and the miraculous wells that followed her dried up. God planned to bring forth water from the existent rocks, but the people got angry and afraid. Moses got angry and hit the rock instead of speaking to it. The waters did flow, but they were bitter. The people complained that they grew tired of their miraculous food (manna) and wanted something else. Pizza delivery had not yet been invented, and the people rebelled (again). Amid this rebellion, they suffered another foreign attack. Once again, God came to the rescue.

God planned that the 40 years of wandering would allow those born into captivity to pass on while a new generation who never knew slavery could move into the land appreciating its blessings. Standing adjacent to the land, as they did 40 years earlier, they were no better prepared than they were before. When all we know is all we know, we cannot teach something different.

Such is life. We live in a world that continues under the influence of the previous generations. This reality is a blessing and a curse. We owe a considerable debt to those who trail blazed, broke ground, and provided us the opportunities in which to grow. At the same time, where we lack faith to take those next steps, we remained locked in the bondage of yesterday’s fears and yesterday’s limitations. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan reminds us that the past has a vote but not a veto. If we find ourselves unable to move past the horizons of a previous generation’s vision, we stand committed to stagnating in faith. It is most important to know from where we come, but it cannot put restrictions on the directions and places that we need to travel for our better future.

How do we move forward? The answer is simple: Faith. The Biblical characterization of Israel lacked faith – at every turn. The message to us is most evident, “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that faith is not knowledge and can never be absolutely secure. The Biblical Jacob finds faith only after wrenching his hip wrestling with God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, “Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.” Faith is messy, and it requires a spiritual journey. It requires one to engage and not just follow. It requires the first step on the dark staircase.

Will we find ourselves better able to face the challenges and accept the blessings that life brings us in each successive day of living? Or, will we nostalgically hold on to yesterday – good or bad – and ignore the beauty and grandeur of blessing available and waiting. Torah says, in every case, “U’v’charta b’chayim – Choose Life.” Even while we may not be able to dictate what happens to us, we can always choose how we will respond and move on. Shabbat Shalom.