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Hukkat 5782    July 9, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     There is a lot that we do not understand about Parshat Hukkat. The biggest mystery of the parsha is the whole concept of the sacrifice of the Red Cow. This purification offering seems to make pure anyone who comes in contact with its ashes but those who prepare it themselves become impure. It is only in modern times that the Biblical scholar, Jacob Milgram, finally brings understanding to this sacrifice through his close reading of the text.

     The other difficulty with this text has to do with bringing water to the People of Israel in the desert. For the second time, Moses brings water out of a rock, enough to satisfy the entire camp. But instead of this being another triumph for Moses, it is counted as a failure and later it will be cited as the reason Moses and Aaron will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Over the centuries, commentators have tried to understand what happened on this day that brought down such a severe punishment on these two brothers. Some say that Moses was supposed to speak to the rock and disobeyed God when he struck the rock instead. Others maintain that Moses disparaged God’s people by calling them “rebels.” Still other commentators point to Moses losing his temper yet again in his leadership of the people. I even found a commentary that points to Moses needing to mourn the death of his sister and the people will not leave him to be a mourner but push him to “get back to work.” But Moses is not yet ready to return to his work.

     The Midrash Tanchuma tells a story about why Moses lost his temper. Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein translates the story this way: And all Israel stood and saw the miracles of the rock. They began to say [to themselves]: ‘Moshe knows the ways of that [particular] rock. If he wants, he knows how to draw water for us from it (and therefore, there is no miracle in that!). So, they said to him: ‘Here is the rock. Just as you wanted to bring forth water from that rock, bring it forth from this rock.’  This puts Moshe in a quandary over what to do. If he listened to the people, then it would be necessary to ignore the words of God. [In exasperation,] he yelled back at them: ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water out of this rock?’ (Numbers 20:10) (Adapted from Tanhuma Hukat 9)”

    From this point of view, Moses did indeed lose his temper but only when pushed to his limits by those he was leading. As Moses enters his final year as leader of the people, his angry outburst shows that he has reached the end of his rope. It is time to look to new leadership to help the people enter and conquer the land. Moses is ready for retirement. He is showing the strain from his forty good years of leading Israel from slavery until now. The people are almost there, and they will need new leadership that is both patient and inspiring. Moses and Aaron were the leaders needed to get the people across the desert. Now our people will require someone new.

     Being impatient with leaders is nothing new. The history of the modern rabbinate is filled with requests from congregations that are logically impossible. Rabbis are told to not skip any prayers but still finish the service in two hours. We are told we have to make time for our family but to be on call 24/7. We are told to preach relevant sermons but not to offend anyone. No one ever said it was easy to be a Rabbi.

     We are always hard on our leaders. It never ceases to amaze me that the media has daily polls to tell us when a leader is up in the polls or if he has done something that pushes him down in daily popularity. It is unfair to hold leaders to popularity polls. Questions asked like “Do you think the country is on the right path?” “Do you think this leader is doing a respectable job?” “What do you think about the last thing this leader has done?” or “If the election were held today who would you vote for?” These questions are designed to tell us how popular our leaders are. But is the function of leadership to only be popular?

     Good leaders are not the ones who wait to decide until they discover which way the popularity winds are blowing. Good leaders are the ones who make hard decisions and then explain why this decision, which is not popular, is still the best decision. Leaders are the ones we choose to look to the future and to guide us to the best future possible. It is not easy but making one hard decision is better than kicking the can down to road for some future leader to deal with.

     When I was first introduced to politics, one of the lessons was making the choice to either do the right thing or to do what you needed to do to get reelected. On the one hand, what was the point of being ethical and practical if it means that we could not be reelected? On the other hand, what was the purpose of being reelected if we cannot do what we know we need to do? Is the point of leadership to stay in power or to do the right thing? All too often, political leaders desire to stay in power more than they desire to do what they know needs to be done.

     We often complain that our leaders do not really get anything of substance done anymore. And it is true that there seems to be a lot of gridlock both in state and in the federal government. Our elected leaders are all afraid that if they take a stand and speak out about something consequential, then their opponents will speak out against them, and their poll numbers will go down. Leadership means dealing with the fact that some promising ideas also have problems attached to them and today’s representatives are often afraid that the good they do will be forgotten and the bad things that happen will be long remembered by their opponents in the next election. It looks bad if we are forced to justify what we have done in response to opposition. Some say that it makes us look weak.

     Moses can tell us that sometimes leaders make mistakes. Sometimes they pay a heavy price for their decision;, sometimes what looks like a disaster today, later will show that it was a brilliant move. Timing is sometimes important. We might have an economic problem today but eventually we will see real growth in our economy. Can we see beyond our self interest today to reap a greater reward in the future?

     What makes this all the harder is a media cycle that is quick to criticize but not to look ahead for a larger picture. The media is all about selling advertising. The more dire the situation, the more people watch and the more the station can get for their advertising time. Therefore, it is important to get our news from a variety of sources, and from a variety of reporters who although they see the same event, each reporter may interpret that event differently. We, the consumer, are the ones called upon to decide what is true and what is not.

     Which is the point of my lesson today. What makes a good leader, or a bad leader is, more often than not, in the way we see them and in how we see our world. Can we put ourselves in their shoes and try to see why our leaders are doing what they do? Is it because they are afraid or because they are bold, do they act on our behalf or on their own self-interest? Rabbi Silverstein writes: “Moshe, like most leaders, was constantly tested by his people. Should he abide by principle and follow God’s words or should he give in to popular demands. All this at the very end of his successful forty-year mission to transport his people to its homeland. Imagine the tremendous stress and anxiety thrust upon him. In the end, according to this midrash, he burst forth and blurted out an inappropriate response to the people, something a leader must never do, rendering himself no longer capable of leading the people. What a tragedy! What a lesson for all of us in dealing with others.”

     The truth in all of this is that we get the leaders that we choose, the leaders that we deserve. If we are one issue voters, then we are letting our elected officials buy our votes. All they need to do is say the right thing and no matter what else they may say, they can count on us. We should instead have three things we must consider before we cast our votes. First, does this candidate stand for issues that we support? Is it more than lip service? Have they voted their beliefs? Second is that nobody is perfect. What issues do these officials support that we DON’T support. Does their support for these issues negate the good things that we do support? And third, do the people we want to vote for play well with other representatives from their own party and from those across the aisle? To get to where we want to be we must negotiate what we want with others who may want something else. That is what politics in this country should be and it can be that way again if we decide that this is an important part of who we are voting for.

     If we are listening to the news and we are outraged by what is happening to our country, then we know exactly what we should do. We need to get to know our candidates, ask them good questions and then choose who the best for the job is and then vote for that person. We should not let any newspaper; cable channel or social media site choose our representatives for us. Voting is a right and a responsibility. If we want good leaders, we need to take the time to choose the right ones. The time to start exploring who should lead us is now; November will be here before we know it and we need to be ready

     Do not follow others when choosing leaders. See candidates for who they are and support the ones who support most of our concerns. Vote responsibly. May God give us wise and discerning people to be our leaders, and may we appreciate their excellent work as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784