The summer months are a time of rest and rejuvenation as much as a time to prepare for new challenges that await us in the period that will follow this change of pace. While we stop to reflect and catch our breath we begin to imagine with great anticipation and even a modicum of anxiety what the future holds in store. In my own experience the summer is like clapping with one hand or looking out of one eye, as part of my focus is already on the High Holy Days and my efforts to make them not only personally useful but communally pleasing and productive.
The ability to navigate through a period of transition and a season of planning for the future finds its backdrop and existential echo in various Torah portions of the summer season, not the least of which is this week’s sedrah of Chukat.
In Chukat we find two key moments of historical change. There is the death of Miriam which was greeted with great fear and panic. She dies at Kadesh, where she is also buried, and then there ceases to be water for the people. The result is a populist revolt against the leadership as the rank and file question why they were brought to this wilderness if only to die there. It is a common cry heard on more than one occasion during their desert trek.
The second historical turning point in Chukat is the death of Aharon, who dies at Mt. Hor. The narrative that describes his final days and ultimate passing indicates that there was a gentle, peaceful transfer of authority (something we often celebrate as a fact and feature of our own American political system) albeit in this case with the mantle of leadership being naturally conferred upon an heir, Aharon’s son Elazar. The trappings of office were exchanged. The father robes his son and the future is secured.
Indeed, in the latter instance there is mourning and wailing for the loss of a beloved leader and guide; and threats are mounted from without by enemy forces seeking to destabilize what they sensed was a weakened people on account of a leader’s passing. But the two events of ending and loss represent very different experiences around change and transition, crisis, and challenge. In the first instance with Miriam’s death the response is rebellion and complaints. In the second instance, involving Aharon, there is sadness and mourning coupled with the transfer of authority and a succession plan.
A useful insight into how one might facilitate personal and communal change at this propitious time in the calendar can be found in the details of the red heifer ritual which appear in this sedrah’s opening words. As part of the purification process, the Kohen was to take cedar wood and hyssop along with a piece of crimson wool and dip them into the mixture created from the remains of a red heifer. Other mystifying elements of this ritual notwithstanding, we know that cedar wood comes from trees that are strong and firm, tall and erect and can be seen to represent that which is immutable, rigid and unyielding, closed and impermeable. Hyssop, on the other hand, is supple and malleable.
When we move through the seasons of life we should not vacate or abandon our sense of fealty to the past and to the time-honored principles by which we have navigated our lives. That is the cedar wood quality of our lives. Yet, we must somehow remain amenable to the help of the hyssop, to new ideas that we can graft onto the old, and in so doing rise above loss and adjust to change. In all of our lives we have seen and known our Miriam moments of despair and destructive dialogue. But we have also seen and experienced the heights of Aharon, at the top of the mountain, which represents the culmination and aggregate effect of a life purposefully-lived but no longer – lost but not forgotten – that is elegantly and seamlessly merged with its successors so that the strengths of past achievements can support future goals and positively confront new challenges.
May the weeks ahead in which we seek rest and inspiration while we prepare for the New Year bring us to new heights with a renewed sense of confidence in our ability to prevail against the exigencies of the day, born out of a unique combination of agility and resolve, malleability and tenacity, and strength tempered by wisdom, that can empower and enable us to chart a path for future growth and goodness.