D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak

Chukat-Balak D’var Torah 5769 / July 3, 2009

Rabbi Maurice Harris

This week we’ve come to a double Torah portion, pairing Chukat and Balak, two of the portions that bring us to the final chapters of the Israelites’ forty year saga of journeying through the wilderness.  

The parasha opens with a famously intriguing description of a ritual of purification involving the ashes of a red heifer.  The priests are to take an unblemished red cow and burn it along with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson stuff. The ashes are then gathered up and used to create sacred waters which are sprinkled on individuals who have come in contact with the dead to ritually cleanse them.  

Until now, the book of the Torah we are in – the Book of Numbers – has told us stories that have taken place during the first two years of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt.  But now the narrative takes a sudden 38 year jump forward. The generation that witnessed the 10 plagues, that left Egypt, that miraculously crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land, and that experienced the thundering presence of God at Mount Sinai has died now in the wilderness.  With the exception of just a few elders like Moses, his brother Aaron, and his sister, Miriam, a new generation born in the wilderness has now taken the previous generation’s place. With this 38 year jump, our Torah portion presents us with, in fact, a new nation of Israelites with a new mission.  The previous generation’s mission was escape from slavery and the receiving and incorporating of the laws that God provided the nation at Mount Sinai. This generation’s mission will be to maintain those laws and traditions, and to enter and establish themselves in the Promised Land. So our story presents us with a new generation still led by the previous generation’s elders.

But that changes quickly.  Quickly we learn about the death of Miriam as the people are encamped at Kadesh.  Following her death, Moses and Aaron are faced with a crisis. Here’s how the passage reads in translation: Continue reading “D’var Torah – Chukat/Balak”

Aretha Franklin will save America

Maybe our republic is finished. But America also produced Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin can’t be erased from the story of America.

Neither can Gwendolyn Brooks.

James Baldwin, John Lewis, and Harvey Milk can’t be retracted from America’s story.

Neither can Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, and Emma Lazarus.

Cesar Chavez cannot be removed. Neither can Jackie Robinson.

Bob Dylan, Rosa Parks, and Eleanor Roosevelt can’t be excised from the American story.

Lincoln, FDR, and Obama are part of the permanent furniture.

Dr. King is America, and so is Bayard Rustin.
Same goes for Mark Twain.

The Abolitionists can’t be expunged from the historical record.

Harriet Tubman can’t be either.

Jane Addams and Eugene Debs, Margaret Sanger and Saul Alinsky: American to the core.

A. Philip Randolph and Rachel Carson, Thurgood Marshall and Ella Baker,

Dolores Huerta and Abraham Joshua Heschel: red, white and blue forever.

Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, R.E.M., and Bruce Springsteen are part of this nation.

Harper Lee and Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Warren and Sister Helen Prejean, Sojourner Truth and Freddy Mercury, Paul Robeson and Alice Paul – from sea to shining sea.

***

I just gotta remember this in these frightening days … help me, Higher Power, help me to remember this.