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Sermon: Parshat Chukat/Balak, 7/3/20

07/05/2020 12:33:10 PM


Rabbi Charlie

For a recording of the sermon, click HERE.


There’s a lot in this week’s Torah portion – red cows and talking donkeys, travels and military battles, the passing of Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, there’s prophets and blessings and more. When Aaron dies, there’s thirty days of grieving. When Miriam dies, there’s none of that – only a concern about water. It makes sense to ask: what’s going on here?

We can definitely discuss the feminist critique, which is quite valid. At the same time, our rabbis have a story that Miriam was blessed with a miraculous well throughout the Israelites time in the desert. When Miriam passes away, the well goes away. Not surprisingly, the people panic. This leads to Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to the rock as God had instructed. As a result, Moses won’t enter into the Land.

I want to focus in on the people, however. It’s true that at times the Torah has the people complaining about trivial matters. In this case, lots of people in a desert with no water is not a great combination. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria teaches: “Im Ein Kemach, Ein Torah – If there is no flour or sustenance, there is no Torah” (Pirkei Avot 3:17), meaning that we can’t do anything if we don’t take care of our basic needs.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this since there are far too many people in this country that do not have their basic needs met. According to government data, as of a couple years ago, there are 140 million poor and low income people in the United States.

The numbers are hard to imagine, but these are real people who are struggling every day. Ariana from Flint, Michigan explained that her children have never had the experience of drinking water from the tap. Lakin Dillingham, a young person from Knox County, Kentucky shared stories of how her mom was shamed for using SNAP and sitting in McDonalds parking lots for hours to use the wifi so she could finish her homework. Little Jayda Ricard, a ten year old girl from Boston, talked about how there are three methadone clinics less than a mile away and how scary it is to see people walking up and down the streets looking like zombies. Mary Jane Shanklin, an RN and wife of a Kansas Farmer is angry that there’s only one grocery store and no hospitals in her county. She said that “farmers live in an invisible poverty and a silent desperation as foreclosures loom and the blame for being the one who lost the family farm hangs over them every single day.”

And life has only gotten more difficult since the pandemic broke out. Duane Thwaites, who works concessions at the Marlins Ballpark in Miami experienced what far too many people have had to experience. He waited over six weeks to get a response from the unemployment office and eight weeks before he received an unemployment check. This is during a time when approximately 40% of adults in this country could not afford a $400 emergency.

These accounts were collected by the Poor People’s Campaign a campaign that argues that the status quo is not acceptable and “moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy” 140 million people worried about basic necessities – from food and water and health care and safety in their neighborhood.

The pandemic has only made things worse and given people more to worry about. I guess it’s not a surprise that as we celebrate our 4th of July weekend that in a Pew survey released this week 71 percent of Americans are angry about the state of the country right now and 66 percent are fearful. Only 17 percent are feeling proud.

Making reference to that survey, New York Times columnist David Brooks laments in his most recent piece, “A lot of people look around at the conditions of this country — how Black Americans are treated, how communities are collapsing, how Washington doesn’t work — and none of it makes sense. None of it inspires faith, confidence.” He writes, “If you don’t breathe the spirit of the nation, if you don’t have a fierce sense of belonging to each other, you’re not going to sacrifice for the common good.”

Our friend down the street, Reverend Mike Dawson at First UMC Colleyville shared with me how different things felt during World War II. I guess it’s his hobby to listen to old radio shows – I like fantasy and scifi novels, to each their own – and he was telling me about these old broadcasts where everyone was pitching in, everyone was contributing. There was a sense that we were all in this together.

That’s what we’re missing in this country and for me, that’s what this 4th of July needs to be about. There’s been a lot of publicity about Fredrick Douglass’s address on July 5, 1852 where he asked “What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?” His response was scathing and deservedly so. Slaves had no stake in America.

We would all like to live in an America where it is self-evident that all people are created equal, where all Americans have the right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. We have seen that when we’re fractured, the way we are right now, it doesn’t work. We need to feel that sense that we’re all in this together and then we need to act like it.

In the 15th century, Spanish Commentator Don Abravanel taught that giving tzedakah requires empathy. We need to see people who are poor as our own loved ones and understand that when we care for them, we strengthen our community as a whole. That means that when 140 million Americans or more are worried about meeting their basic needs – that’s not just their problem, it’s our problem, too. This is the moral revival that is necessary in order to save the heart and soul of our democracy. We really are all in this together. If we can regain that sense of connection with all Americans, then I think we’ve got a chance!

Shabbat Shalom!

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781