Chukat: Look up or look out

Chukat: Look up or look out

In less than two weeks, we enter our Republican and Democrat conventions. Our political landscape is pitted with fear and anxiety, even anger. There’s a perceptible shift in our receptiveness to social debate; the tension is ripe with judgment.

American Jews are divided in politics. With rancor we argue over Israel, immigration, or refugees. We mostly read those we agree with, mocking other opinions.

Jonathan Haidt, in his brilliant book “The Righteous Mind,” explores “why good people are divided by politics and religion.” His research reveals three ethics that shape us: autonomy, community, and divinity. Western society prioritizes the fulfillment of personal needs and wants, as long as we coexist peacefully without too much interference on one another. Yet, we also value being part of family, teams, tribes, peoples. And we draw meaning from being part of something purposeful, a “sacred order.”

It’s the latter that brings us deep fulfillment. Haidt teaches, “We may spend most of our waking hours advancing our own interests, but we all have the capacity to transcend self-interest and become simply part of the whole. It’s not just a capacity; it’s the portal to many of life’s most cherished experiences.”

When political tension divides us to our core, we harm ourselves. We need perspective. Because we need one another.

Parshat Chukat begins with the strange ritual of burning the red heifer and reducing it to ashes. Mixed with water and applied, they make an unclean person clean. What sin do the ashes cleanse? “The Holy Blessed One said, ‘Let the heifer come and atone for the incident of the (golden) calf,’” (Chukat Rabbah 19:8). The golden calf episode isn’t only one of idolatry; it is a full-out rebellion against Moses’ leadership. Thirty-eight years have passed since then. Perhaps the ashes, stored within the Ark, are a warning to the new generation of Israelites. Yet these Israelites do not seem very different from their parents, complaining bitterly and antagonistically of Moses and God. “…The people grew restive on the journey, and the people spoke against God and against Moses, ‘Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food!’” (Numbers 20:4-5).

We have to wonder as the new generation of Israelites drew close to the Promised Land, were they ready for it?

God, it seems, didn’t think so. “The Eternal sent seraphim, serpents, against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned by speaking against the Eternal and against you. Intercede with the Eternal to take away the serpents from us!’ And Moses interceded for the people. Then the Eternal One said to Moses, ‘Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.’ Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on the standard; and when bitten by a serpent, anyone who looked at the copper serpent would recover.” (Numbers 21:6-9).

This is a paradox. The serpent’s bite would kill; yet gazing upon the copper serpent would heal.

The midrash observes that the Israelites have to look upward to see the serpent standard, that is, to look to up to God, (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:23). In Hebrew, the word for “serpent” is “nachash,” and “copper” is “n’choshet.” The difference between them is the Hebrew letter “tav” on the word n’choshet,” “copper.” The letter “tav” symbolizes God’s seal or imprint — almost like a fingerprint. The addition of the “tav” — turning the “serpent” into “copper” — suggests that when God’s imprint is seen, evil can be transformed into good.

The very things that will harm the people if they only look at one another will bring healing if they look up to God. They will fail utterly unless they look upward, beyond themselves.

Like us, the Israelites are influenced most by the ethic of autonomy; despite redemption and revelation, punishment and wandering, they do not mature easily into a people, let alone a people of faith. The people’s physical landscape is still the desert wilderness. But what of their spiritual landscape? Will they be able to see beyond the desert of their fears? Will they have the spiritual courage to make the land Promised?

Moses and Aaron, as God’s agents, don’t merely guide the people from one location to another. They struggle to help them evolve and mature into a people ready to own the Promised Land.

Are we ready? Let’s demonstrate so during these upcoming conventions. Let’s look upward. Let’s be more attentive and less judgmental. Less certain and more humble. Let’s seek and find the divinity in one another.

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