Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, July 1, 2017
Rabbi Michael Friedland
It’s been another wild week in the world, seems to be that way since the elections last year. Let’s see, the Israeli government told American Jews, in the words of HaAretz commentator Chemi Shalev, ‘Drop Dead!’ And the alleged health care bill finally produced after weeks of secrecy by the Senate, told all Americans who are not billionaires and 20-somethings earning less than $75,000, ‘Drop dead!’. Literally, that’s the health care plan. If you are sick, just drop dead, it will save you a lot of trouble. Because once you see your health cost after paying super high premiums and deductibles for minimal care, you’ll want to kill yourself.
So with everyone telling everyone else to drop dead, let’s talk about two people, Miriam and Aaron, who actually did drop dead in this week’s Torah portion.
But first some explanation.
What did the Israeli government do this week to anger liberal Jews around the world? For several years, leaders of let’s call it, egalitarian Jewish movements and organizations worked with the government and the ultra Orthodox representatives who oversee the Kotel to find a compromise that would permit egalitarian prayer and women’s rights to read Torah, wear tefillin and tallit at the Kotel. The Kotel is an important symbol for the Jewish world, it’s the closest one can get to the holiest site in the world, the Temple Mount. A compromise was agreed to in which a space in a newly excavated area near the Kotel would allow for egalitarian prayer. The compromise was controversial because in doing so, the liberal movements basically conceded to Orthodox oversight at the Wall. Also some women who were not interested in egalitarian prayer but wished only for the opportunity to wear tallit and tefillin and read Torah in the women’s section were sidelined in the compromise.
The conversion issue is even more complicated because in effect it does not change anything for the liberal movements. Jews converted by recognized Jewish religious streams are still welcome in Israel under the law of return, and personal status issues are still separate, they are overseen by the ultra Orthodox rabbanut. The only effective change is that Orthodox rabbis in Israel, who might belong to the modern or national religious camp can no longer oversee conversions in Israel through their private non-rabbanut batei din.
Egalitarian prayer is permitted in other places in Israel, and no real change to conversion policies were made with this bill. So why the anger and threats, such as Steve Nasatir, head of Chicago’s Jewish Federation saying any Israeli MK who votes for the conversion bill will not be welcome in Chicago? Because as Haviv Rettig Gur writes in the Times of Israel, “The reason is simple: (The Kotel) is a real-world symbol of attachment to the land of Israel, and the agreement’s surprise cancellation is a hard, clear stab in the back... agreements are sacred. If compromises can be canceled willy-nilly, why make the sacrifices required to reach them in the first place?” and also “The answer lies in … the sheer scale of the compromise and sacrifice American Jewish leaders believe they made 20 years ago in the Neeman compromise.
It’s one thing to believe you have agreed to an unfair but nevertheless negotiated compromise for the sake of Jewish unity. It’s quite another for the parliament of Israel, in a majority vote for a government-backed bill, to declare for the first time, even if only in a limited way, that the Haredi rabbinate now polices the most fundamental promise made by the State of Israel to the world’s Jews: the right of return, the assurance that Israel belongs to them too.”
So American Jews are being told by the Israeli government that your concerns are not as important as maintaining political support from the Ultra Orthodox, and Americans of all religions are being told by Congress that your health issues are not as important as the tax relief we want to offer to the richest people in the country. In simplest terms the Senate’s health care plan is taking 700 hundred billion dollars from Medicaid, which assists impoverished and disabled Americans so that the government can afford to cut 700 billion dollars in taxes, which will benefit by far the wealthiest Americans who pay more taxes. We are being told that premiums are going down under this plan. But deductibles will go through the roof. Even more insidiously the plans that insurance companies will be able to sell will not have essential benefits, will have the potential to limit life time benefits, may not cover pre-existing conditions. People are going to be shocked when they get their hospital bills – I thought I was covered going to the hospital. “You are covered going to the hospital. Once you go in, then you’re on your own. Not our problem!”
And those of you who are blessed to have employer based coverage, don’t think these changes won’t affect you. Because once insurance companies can create policies for these exchanges that don’t cover essential benefits, they’ll change the employer covered plans as well or charge lots more money to cover those essential benefits. Why did our plan go up so much? The exchange plans are cheaper! Yes but they don’t cover as much. It’s like the guy who complains to the fruit vendor, “the guy across the street is selling bananas for 20 cents a pound, how can you charge 50 cents?” “So mister, go buy from the guy across the street.” “But he’s out of bananas”. “Well, mister, if I was out of bananas I’d charge 20 cents for bananas too.”
Okay so we were talking about people dropping dead. I’m not talking about the effect of Congress’ changes to healthcare any more. In this week’s Torah portion, almost as a throw in, we are told that Miriam dies. Miriam who sheltered and protected her baby brother Moses, Miriam who led the people in song after liberation, her death notice is underwhelming. “The Israelites arrived … at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” That’s it. But what happens immediately after is understood by midrash as a result of her loss. “The community was without water.” Rashi states "From this we learn that all forty years, they had a well because of the merit of Miriam." The bitter complaining by the people against Moses and Aaron that follows leads to the unusually harsh reaction by Moses and the bitter judgment on him and Aaron. Moses loses his temper, smashes the rock, directs harsh invective against the people and is punished along with Aaron, that they will not be able to enter the Promised Land.
Aaron also dies in this week’s Torah portion. His passing is described in terms of a transition of High Priestly power to his son Eliezer. But also with a great poignancy that was missing in the notification of Miriam’s death: All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days." (Num.20:28-29)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes a tradition that Aaron was mourned even more than Moses: the text (Deuteronomy 34:8) describing Moses’ death says simply that "the Israelites bewailed Moses in the steppes of Moab for thirty days," but here, the Torah is very clear that ALL the "house of Israel" mourned for Aaron.
In the case of the after effects of Miriam’s passing, a crisis, not all that different from other leadership crises under Moses’ leadership, leads to Moses losing his temper and causing a disastrous punishment to him and Aaron. In the case of Aaron’s passing, which occurs soon after Moses and his contentious reaction to the people regarding the water crisis, unmitigated grief and loss.
Rabbi Neal Loevinger suggests that it is precisely because of the last interactions with Aaron, that were so contentious and angry, that caused the extreme outpouring of grief. “In this reading, the pain of the people comes not only from losing Aaron, but from losing their chance to reconcile with him and make their peace.”
I think that is a factor in Moses’ reaction to the people after the death of his sister as well. The last recorded statement by Miriam was not a loving supportive comment to her brother but her attack on his wife and his prominence as God’s special prophet a few chapters back. Did they reconcile? Certainly Moses prayed for her welfare at that time but the prayer was terse and the text is silent about their interactions afterwards. Ron Adelsman believed that it was a grieving Moses that lost his temper. But perhaps Moses was grieving not only the loss of his older sister but the relationship that was not healed. The pain of not having made good with the sister whom he loved but by whom he may still have felt betrayed, may have erased the filters that Moses assiduously prepared to shield his emotions from constant complaints and attacks on his leadership.
In both cases, the pain of the people who loved Aaron the rodef shalom, the pursuer of peace and harmony in the community, but whose final relations with him were contentious, and the pain of Moses, losing his beloved sister who had hurt him badly before she died, it was unresolved feelings that accentuated the grief.
The lesson for us in reading these poignant narratives of loss and grief comes from knowing that none of us know when our time is up. Thus reconciliation with those we may have quarreled with is a constant spiritual imperative. It is not only for the 10 days of repentance. As Rabbi Loevinger succinctly puts it: It's quite simple, really: if you want to be at peace with your loved ones, you have to make peace with your loved ones! Rabbi Eliezar taught his students that one is only required to do teshuvah the day before one dies. His students asked, But how does one know when that time will be? That’s the point said Rabbi Eleazar. Since one does not know, every day one should be doing teshuvah and working towards reconciliation. It’s true for our members in Congress, it’s true for the Israeli government in their relations with the Diaspora communities. It is true for us in our own lives. Such opportunities are precious beyond measure.