By Doron Krakow
Just Beyond the Wilderness
Often, these Friday messages are an opportunity for me to reflect on a particular experience from the preceding week. Though this week offered its fair share of possibilities, I find myself reflecting less on the experiences themselves and more on things that served to contextualize them. I found an important corollary in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat | חֻקַּ֣ת, which contains one of the more familiar stories of the Exodus.
The people are complaining again, and for a third time since leaving Egypt, it is about water. They’re thirsty. Together with Aaron, Moses enters the Tent of Meeting to speak with God. God instructs them to gather the people and that standing before the assembly, Moses should take his staff and speak to the rock, from which water will flow. Having gathered the people, a clearly agitated Moses addresses them: “Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” He then raises his arm and strikes the rock two times with his staff—and water does indeed pour forth. But God is displeased and shortly thereafter tells Moses and Aaron they will not accompany the people into the Promised Land.
Much has been written about why Moses was so agitated amidst the people’s latest discontent and whether his actions justified God’s determination that—notwithstanding his singular accomplishments as a leader—he should not be permitted to complete the journey. A more expansive review of the parsha reveals there were other dynamics at work—matters that contextualize the story. Just prior to this incident, Moses’ sister, Miriam, died. Commentators believe she may have been the closest person to him. Aaron, too, dies before the end of the parsha, and Moses and the people sit in mourning for 30 days.
The journey to freedom has already lasted nearly 40 years. A generation born in slavery has passed from the scene, and the new generation, arisen in freedom, is preparing to complete the journey. We are reminded, once more, that Moses must maintain an unshakable focus on bringing them to their destination while contending with all manner of challenges, obstacles, and turmoil—both personal and communal.
And so it is with us.
Although we live and work at a far less dramatic moment in the history of our people, it is incumbent upon us as Jewish leaders to proceed with unshakable determination in pursuit of our intended goals, notwithstanding the seemingly endless obstacles, challenges, and even blows that confront us along the way.
As I went about my work this week, the summer solstice on Wednesday left no doubt that the camp season is in full swing. Visiting the Memphis Jewish Community Center in Tennessee, I encountered campers and staff already in their third full week of summer fun. Memphis is one of a number of communities where the school year has long since ended, while elsewhere staff orientations are just now unfolding as counselors and other staff eagerly anticipate the imminent arrival of campers. JCC summer programs in Israel are in the offing as well, as are the opening ceremonies of the 2023 JCC Maccabi Games® in Israel and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The continuing pursuit of greater Jewish community and more vibrant Jewish life animates our work in these and countless other programs, initiatives, and endeavors—a pursuit that requires dogged determination and unflagging commitment to excellence.
Greater Jewish community. That’s a pretty tall order—and I’m hard pressed to imagine that we can get there without near total concentration and resolve. But much as Moses had to remain focused on the Promised Land amidst personal loss and in the face of actions on the part of members of the community bent on going a different way, so, too, do we have to contend with the slings and arrows of the wider world.
The coverage of the trial of the Tree of Life shooter—who last week was convicted on all 63 federal charges brought against him—has shaken many whose lives were touched by the single most deadly antisemitic attack in the history of this country. The verdict followed many days of horrific and frequently graphic testimony from survivors, first responders, and victims’ family members. It is hard to imagine that anyone whose life was touched by this tragedy has been able to function without distraction—and there is more to come as the penalty phase of the trial gets underway next week.
On Monday, I received a text from my son, Aaron, letting me know that one of the boys murdered in last week’s terrorist attack at a restaurant and nearby gas station not far from the Israeli village of Eli, was the son of a member of his army reserve unit. The victims are always somebody’s son or daughter, mother or father. For me—knowing my son remains a soldier with periodic deployments in defense of his country—this latest attack was yet another emotional reminder that events happening around the world sometimes strike very close to home.
Such developments and countless others—whether at home, in our work-a-day world, or halfway across the globe—can and often do affect us. They can make it especially hard to remain steadfast in our commitment to the greater work at hand—and sometimes we falter. Parshat Chukat offers an important reminder that even the greatest leaders stumble and may at times have their resolve briefly shaken. But achieving our most important goals and aspirations requires each of us never to lose sight of the horizon—or of the Promised Land that lies just beyond the wilderness.
Shabbat shalom | שַׁבָּת שָׁלוֹם
President and CEO
JCC Association of North America
Seventy-five years ago today, the White House announced arrangements for the exchange of diplomatic representatives between the U.S. and Israel. James G. McDonald was named the head of the U.S. Mission to Israel.
McDonald was born in Coldwater, Ohio, in 1886. Although his father was Scot, his mother was German, and he spoke the language fluently. He studied at Indiana University and completed a master’s degree in history, political science, and international relations at Harvard. In 1933, he was appointed League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and in this capacity, he met with Hitler shortly after he became the chancellor of Germany. McDonald was appalled to hear Hitler say: “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.” The experience informed McDonald’s work on the world stage in the years to come—and brought him to the attention of President Truman in 1948.
That’s the way it was…