This parashat hashavua, this Torah reading of the week, chronicles a time of terrible crisis for our people. The leaders we rely on are disappearing; the path is lost in a cloud of doubt and fear; the G*d of justice feels very far away.
The relevance of parashat Hukkat is profound and somewhat unnerving to those who believe that human nature forces us to repeat our mistakes unendingly. I’m grateful that Judaism offers a more hopeful answer to our existential questions: we are capable of learning from the past, and doing better.
In this parashah, Miriam dies, shortly followed by Aaron; in between, Moshe makes the fatal mistake that dooms him to die before the end of the journey. For the people of Israel, we are losing our parents. In these moments we see them for who they really are – flawed and precious human beings – and realize that it is now our turn. Old certainties die with the elders who knew more than we, and we see that there is no one else to lead us forward in these times but us.
And these times: the Psalmist offers a striking description of our situation.
Listen to my prayer, do not ignore my plea
I sway and moan
From the crushing force of the wicked
My heart quails within me
And death-terrors fall upon me
Fear and trembling enter me
And horror envelops me
I say “would that I had wings like a dove
I would fly off and find rest.”
I have seen outrage and strife in the city
Day and night disaster upon the walls
Guile and deceit never far from the square.
– Tehillim 55.3-12 (excerpted)
In these times there is no one who can say with a voice we innately trust, as a parent might, that everything will be all right; many of us find ourselves following one voice, then another, as if jumping from rock to rock to cross a stream. This, too, is progress of a sort, and it can even be constructive, if we are choosing well where to put our feet.
Our Jewish tradition offers support for our feet as well as our tired hearts in an obscure story at the end of our parashah. It records that our people found themselves in a wilderness called by the Torah’s narrator Be’er, a word for “well” in Hebrew.
The people sang a song to the well:
Spring up, O well – sing to it!
The well which the leaders dug,
Which the generous of the people started
With their own hands.
– BaMidbar 21.17-18
For Jewish tradition, a well is a common symbol for Torah. Even as water is life, for Jews, Torah is life-giving. Not the scroll itself, but what it represents: the Jewish community gathered around it to together puzzle out our responses to the mysteries of our lives; the source of the Jewish ethics and history that reassure us that we are not the first to struggle.
The leaders we seek – the leaders we must ourselves become – are those who dig for that sustenance; they are those who are generous with their time, the fruit of their study, and their resources that support our Torah study. Each one of us has a role to play in making sure that we all have access to life-giving, passionate Torah – the supportive source of that which sustains our ability to survive in these times of wandering and fear.