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Special Shabbat Morning Service

July 8, 2020

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Sermon given by Barbara Bell


At this point in our story, Israel is camped on the edge of their ‘promised land’. Torah describes a type of mania that has spread through every family, including the priests, until all Israel is ‘wailing at the entrance to their tents.’ They demand that Moses provide them with meat, but they have vast flocks with them. They fantasise about the free benefits of Egypt, but forget their suffering. Torah tells us that they were mit’on’neem, ‘looking to complain’, which Rashi explains as finding a ‘pretext to turn away from the Omnipresent,’ and this was ‘evil in God’s ears.’

At the end of the parashah, even Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses, secretly to each other, as if God couldn’t hear them. Again, the real cause for their complaints is hidden. Midrash defends Miriam, explaining her criticisms of Moses as concern for his wife and the marriages of the newly appointed prophetic leadership. But it’s clear that she’s actually offended by being overlooked.

Freud might analyse Israel’s angry cacophony as the unconscious defence mechanism of displacement, whereby ‘the mind substitutes either a new aim or a new object for goals felt in their original form to be dangerous or unacceptable.’

We might empathise with Israel to some degree. The prospect of war is fearful. They had suffered hardships. They had been infantilised. Whatever their reasons, on the brink of battle the God project became unacceptable and too dangerous to them. 

But I think that there’s pathos to this situation too. God had called the Hebrews his ‘first born son’ and rescued them with extravagant demonstrations of affection. In last week’s parashah, in the Aaronic blessing, we read that God wanted to make it personal and bless each one. He would bend his knee, like a father, so that they might have an individual face-to-face encounter with Him.

So, wouldn’t a proper response to God’s generosity be gratitude? A mutual bowing? A mutual face to face – honest encounter? And, would this have resolved Israel’s problems?

Today, gratitude is an essential part of Judaism and one of its great strengths. Rabbi Telushkin says, ‘Gratitude is not only an important indicator of character it’s a prerequisite for being a happy person’. This is because, ‘at the same time that a person is cultivating a feeling of gratitude, they are also cultivating a feeling of being loved. As you cultivate gratitude, you not only become a finer human being, you also become a happier person. And it’s something we can do every day of our life.’

It dawns on Moses that Israel will never change. They’re like small children and he's not able to carry them forward alone. He needs help. The redemption project is in real danger of failing.

He turns to God, asking desperate questions. ‘Why have you done this to me? Did I conceive these people? Where can I get meat from?’ He expresses his distress. ‘Alone I cannot carry these people!’ Then, ‘If this is the way you are going to treat me, please kill me!’ He addresses God using the female word for you, at, not the male atah. Rashi says that this is because Moses was feeling ‘weak like a woman’. But perhaps, because God is neither male nor female, and because Moses was acknowledging his limitations and requesting help, he was actually addressing that female aspect of God that evokes the Divine presence, comfort and strength. After all, when Adam felt most alone, God recognised it wasn’t good, and provided the female to be his worthy helper. Moses is expressing himself freely, praying like a man who is absolutely confident in God’s love, who has practised returning God’s gaze.

So, it’s terribly sad to read that when God looked for each Hebrew, they rejected Him.

From Moses’ mouth to God’s. Meat will be provided but the Hebrews who have rejected His laws concerning food preparation suffer the consequences. As for Moses, help is at hand. He is to choose 70 responsive leaders who will help carry the burden. God will take Moses’ spirit and put it on them.

The 70 prophecy once then disappear into the body of Israel. We don’t hear about them again. They become like yeast, using their influence to leaven the whole lump with this spirit, until a new batch of Hebrews could rise to the task of taking their land.

These 70 would affect the transformation within the people that Moses could not.

So, what is this special spirit, this ruach of Moses? 

As we look for the answer in this parashah, we find that the characteristics of Moses’ spirit are also the characteristics of gratitude.

We are told that Moses ‘was very humble, more so than any other human being on earth’. Humility is more than modesty or patience. Rabbi Twerski defines humility as a uniquely human trait because it makes a person teachable, open to new ideas, able to grow. Humility enables a person to ask for legitimate help and therefore, give it in an acceptable manner. A humble person acknowledges that mistakes are part of their humanity and are not threatened by their own imperfections. And - humility is essential in our pursuit of happiness.

These attributes are embedded in the Hebrew understanding of ‘to thank’ or ’praise’, l’hodot. So, without humility we cannot experience gratitude.

Moses is also ‘faithful, ne’eman, throughout God’s house’. Avivah Zornberg says ne’eman means that Moses was ‘stable and unchanging’, ‘constantly attuned to the wavelengths of the Divine.’ This quality of loyalty springs from a personal experience of Divine goodness. It pays the debt of gratitude.

This is why God said, ‘With him,’ Moses, ‘I speak mouth to mouth’ – or face to face.

This image is not about accuracy, but intimacy and life. It evokes a kiss, an expression of mutual love. It reminds us that clay Adam is brought to life by God’s breath; the kiss of life.  And whilst the whole of Israel buries their real feelings under their complaints, Moses is unique because he speaks with a radical honesty, born of humility, to the God he trusts implicitly. He asks questions when he doesn’t understand. He says how he feels. He makes his requests clear. He is absolutely loyal to the answers God gives. There is nothing between him and God.

Moses’ spirit, resting on the seventy prophetic leaders - in one generation - transformed our national identity, our relationship with our God, and our history.

Now, we are known as Jews not Hebrews - Yehudim from the Hebrew name Yehudah, to offer thanks, to show gratitude.

So, this week, as we go into our week, may we cultivate this same spirit each day. And as we go, may it transform the way we respond to our opportunities and challenges, just as it did for our forefathers.

Shabbat Shalom.

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