In each generation …
Parshat Chukat Numbers 19:1-22:1
One of the major events related in Parshat Chukat is the death of Miriam, the older sister of Moses and Aaron. Immediately after this, we read that the Israelites were without water and complained to Moses. God instructs Moses to speak to a certain rock, and water will come forth. Moses instead strikes the rock with his staff, contrary to God’s instructions. As punishment for his disobedience, Moses will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land. While ostensibly this incident is a lesson in the importance of faith and obedience, it also teaches us the importance of properly managing change.
According to rabbinic tradition, while Miriam was alive, a rock (known as Miriam’s Well) accompanied the Israelites on their journeys, providing water for them in the desert. With Miriam’s death, this source of water ceased to sustain the people, and they needed to find their own water; hence their complaints to Moses. Since water is a very significant concern in the desert, the absence of Miriam’s Well represented a fundamental change in how the people were to survive. While Moses may have failed this test of his leadership, the people did survive and continue to thrive after Miriam’s death.
Over the centuries, the Jewish people have survived a number of potential catastrophes by being adaptable. The Babylonian exile cemented the theological view that God is universal; the Babylonians may have defeated the Israelites, but they had not conquered our God. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans led to the primacy of the rabbis and of the oral tradition instead of the priestly system of sacrifices. In the subsequent years, Jewish life has undergone larger and smaller changes, as Jews adapted to living in their many homes. Different institutions and different leaders have been seminal under different circumstances; when they were no longer useful they were phased out. Moses was the right leader to guide the Israelites out of Egypt, but Joshua was better suited to conquering the Promised Land.
American Jewish life is undergoing a period of profound transition. The institutions that have been the bedrock of our communities for the last 100 years are facing shrinking membership and dwindling participation. It would be easy to conclude that Jewish life is waning and will gradually fade from the American scene. However, this would be an incorrect assumption, because it is rooted in the structures that have been effective in the past, not in the new structures that will be needed in the future. I have full confidence that a robust and vibrant Jewish life will continue to exist in America for many years to come, even if the existing communal models must change. If our ancestors could find water in the desert, we can certainly adapt to our changing Jewish landscape.
Rabbi Howard Stein is a member of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.