I remember sitting in a hotel lobby with a group of rabbis who had founded their own spiritual communities. It was, for all its importance, impromptu – an unscheduled gathering of people breaking barriers of welcoming and prayer and relevance in American Judaism. Generally, this was not a quiet group and, while not necessarily arrogant, not so humble either. But in this particular moment, all of them were listening very closely to one older rabbi who had mentored many of them. He said, “I’m leaving. Now it’s your turn.”
In that one moment – unplanned, unbidden – time made itself very clear: one era was over and another beginning. A profound holy responsibility shifted and spread to everyone gathered.
The Israelites, too, experience this shift. They’ve been following Moses through the desert, been guided by Aaron the High Priest, and been led by Miriam in song and spirit. And then in this parashah, all of that changes. First, Miriam dies and the water dries up. Then Moses, punished by God for an outburst of anger, will not be permitted to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. And finally, Aaron transfers leadership of the priesthood to his son Eleazar and dies. Unplanned, unbidden, time makes itself clear: change happens, death and consequences come to all of us.
How do the Israelites respond to this enormous change?
The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of Adonai!
Why have you brought the Adonai’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?
Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers/BaMidbar 20:3-5).
Their quarreling is not about the water. If it were about the water, the water would be mentioned first. Instead, they are euphorically nostalgic for the figs and pomegranates that they never got to eat when they were slaves in Egypt. No, their quarreling is not about the water. Their quarreling is their response to the unknown: How will we continue on without our leaders? How will we find water without Miriam? How will we know God’s will without Moses? How will we worship God without Aaron?
Many of us respond to change, and especially grief, in this way: How will I live now? Can I even go on? It feels like there’s no more water.
And then, at some point – unplanned and sometimes unbidden – there’s water again.
For the Israelites, the water comes just one chapter later. Even after Miriam’s death, even after their quarreling and struggle with change, the water still comes: “Adonai said to Moses, ‘Assemble the people that I may give them water’” (Numbers/BaMidbar 21:16). And the people are ready to receive it.
The Israelites burst into song: “Spring up, O well – sing to it” (21:17). They are joyful! Grateful!
This song is different from earlier songs. The Sefat Emet calls on us to notice that when they sang at the Red Sea way back in the book of Exodus, Moses sang with them. Here, the Israelites sing alone. They sing alone because they understand that God’s gift of water is theirs, that God’s gift is not tied to any one person or any one prophet, and that they are indeed ready and willing to receive God’s gift themselves. Joy overflows and they sing!
So it is with us, dear Beit T’Shuvah family. The mission of Beit T’Shuvah is not any one person. The mission of Beit T’Shuvah, and the power and presence of our holy community, is a commitment that each of us makes whether we’ve just arrived in the house, or if, like Carrie Newman, Susan, Chaplain Adam, Barbara and others, we’ve been here more than ten years, or even, like Harriet and Rabbi Mark, we’ve been here since the beginning.
I was in a counseling session with a resident earlier this week, and we were studying the phrase drawn from the Mishnah and etched in our sanctuary: “to save a life is to save a whole world.” He had thought that Beit T’Shuvah was here only to save his life. He learned that he’s here to save the lives of the people who connect with our community. He was willing to receive that responsibility. He was joyful to know he mattered.
With all the transition in leadership at Beit T’Shuvah – most recently Rabbi Micha’el’s departure – we draw on what we’ve learned from the teachers and counselors and rabbis who came before us. We tell how their teachings transformed us, and we help to transform others. This parashah comes to teach us that it’s all of our turn – clergy, residents, staff, non-residents, Board members, everyone in our community – to receive the gifts of God and of our holy community and to be responsible for those gifts. To embrace them and share them for our own sake, the sake of those who came before, and the sake of those who will come after.
Let’s sing and be joyful.