Yom Shlishi, 13 Tammuz 5775
Tuesday, 30 June 2015
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Read an inspired commentary on this week’s Torah portion by one of our free-thinking Liberal Rabbis.

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Parashat Chukat 5775
26th June 2015 - Rabbi Anna Gerrard

We are still camping with the Israelites in the Wilderness.  And after several weeks of mostly undramatic Parashot, we are starting to feel their pain and frustration that the great Exodus did not lead to immediate redemption but rather this form of purgatory, forty years of wandering and wondering.  In this week’s Parasha and not for the first time, they complain:

"If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!  Why have you brought the Lord'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 20:3-5)

Moses and God are angry at their lack of gratitude and their readiness to forget the pain and suffering of slavery in Egypt.  Our reaction as readers is probably also one of indignation but I wonder if we should be so quick to judge.

In the Book of Exodus, we are told about the ‘harsh labour’ (Exodus 1:14) that the Egyptians imposed on the Israelites and the intention of the Egyptian leadership to make the lives of this minority group ‘bitter’.  We also hear of the terrible decree that first born Israelite boys should be thrown into the River at birth (Exodus 1:16).  We must assume that life in Egyptian slavery was terrible but we never hear the Israelites complain in the way they complain about the wilderness.

There are several possible explanations for this.  The tightly-written narrative may simple omit this particular detail.  Or the Israelites, like many other oppressed people, may have become so accustomed to their suffering that they were desensitised to the injustice and too tired for outrage.  With familiarity come acceptance and they may have kept their heads down indefinitely had it not been for Moses inspiring them to see their suffering and try to escape.

Which brings us back to the Wilderness.  It is easy to resent leadership when leaders sweep people up in big ideas and big plans, even if the leaders have good intentions and the plans are ultimately for the best.  From the middle of a big plan, it is hard to know which way it might go and even harder to have complete faith in a happy ending.

When I think about the Israelites of today’s world, I think of asylum seekers who flee their countries for a better life and end up in crowded ships or isolated refugee camps; of young women who are promised a new career and find themselves in locked lorries wondering what the future might hold; of disenfranchised British Muslims who are drawn to promises of honour and glory and end up scared pawns in a game they cannot leave.

Every great journey has risks and uncertainties.  Every great transition has charismatic leaders.  Sometimes their ideologies and their plans really are for the best and other times they are a smokescreen for further corruption and exploitation.  With oversight or hindsight, it can be possible to tell the difference, but to the individual in the middle of the journey, it is surely all a Wilderness.

 

 

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