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Rabbinic Reflections - Parshat Hukkat                                  July 13, 2019 - 10 Tammuz 5779

07/11/2019 09:18:33 AM


A member of the Senate, known for his hot temper and acid tongue, explodes one day in mid-session and begins to shout, "Half of this Senate is made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!"

All the other Senators plead to the angry member that he withdraw his statement, or be removed from the remainder of the session.  After a long pause, the angry member accepted.

"Ok" he said, "I withdraw what I said.  Half of this Senate is NOT made up of cowards and corrupt politicians!"

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses loses his temper with the Israelites.  We recall the story.  Years ago, the people had complained about the lack of water, and God told Moses to strike a rock, Moses did, and water gushed forth.  In our Torah reading this week, once again the people complain, but this time God tells Moses to speak to the rock.  Now, Moses and Aaron struggled with this contentious people for 40 years, and they appeared to have had enough, because this time Moses does not follow orders.  This time, Moses strikes the rock, not once but twice.  The people still get their water, but both Moses and Aaron are punished.  Neither is privileged to enter the Land.

For all Moses’ humility, this greatest of teachers did have one great flaw – his temper.  All his devoted service to God and Israel were not enough to grant him at least entry into the Land.  He was marked not by his service but by his temper. The Talmud (Eruvin), teaches that a person is known according to three things.  In a word play, the Talmud uses two letters – Kuph and Samech – and adds various vowels to them to indicate those three ways.  A person is known first by "Kees" – by his pocket – in other words, how he shares his material blessings with others;  then by "Kos" – by his cup – or by what and how he drinks – and eats; and finally by Ka'as – by his anger.  How do we manage our temper? Generosity, eating and drinking, and anger.  All three ways in which our reputation is fashioned, and all three are addressed by Jewish law.

There should be no surprise when I tell you that generosity is addressed by Jewish law.  We all know the requirements of tzedakah – and remember that tzedakah is not charity, not something we do when we feel like it.  Tzedakah is more appropriately rendered as “doing the right thing,” sharing what we have with others, because we are God’s conduit in sharing the blessings with which God blesses humankind.

Then there’s the fact that we are known by how we eat and drink.  Of course, there are the rules of kashrut, of Pesah (Passover), of how to choose the appropriate wines (kosher, of course).  But I think there’s more to this requirement.  It’s not just what we eat but how we eat it.  Do we stop and say a brakhah (blessing)?  Do we binge?  Do we abuse food and drink?  Do we live to eat or eat to live?  Then let’s take this one step further.  If we expand the notion of eating and drinking to include everything that goes into our bodies, clearly we can be judged – and we are judged – by whether we abuse any kind of chemical: alcohol, tobacco, prescription drugs, and illegal drugs.  We are judged by how we give and how we consume.

Finally, we are judged by how we manage our anger.  Note it’s not whether we get angry, because of course it would be unreasonable to expect a person never to become angry.  But how do we manage it?  Do we learn how to release it safely? Do we abuse others?  Do we turn it inward, rage against ourselves, and find ourselves depressed?  While we might think that Moses is the paradigm for that kind of problem – if he had managed his frustration at the people he led, might he have been permitted to enter the Land and die there?

How will we be judged?  It’s not yet the High Holy days, but it’s never too early to begin considering how we are to be judged, by God and by others.  Will we all make leadership gifts to the Jewish institutions that need our help, both here and in Israel? Will we temper our intake of food and drink, making the proper choices, and recognizing the blessings we have each time we enjoy them?  Will we respect our bodies enough to turn away from the kinds of chemicals that can only do us harm? And will we recognize when our anger is controlling us, and learn to turn the tables so that we control it?

How do we use our sacred gifts – the blessings God gives us of material wealth, of sustenance, of family and friends?  How do we ensure that we sanctify our lives daily? How do we use our pocket, our cup, and our anger?

Shabbat Shalom!

Wed, August 12 2020 22 Av 5780