Josh Fine is a member of the Wexner Heritage Program in Denver. He is a co-founder of Minyan Na’aleh, a grassroots, independent minyan, and is Vice President & General Counsel of Focus Property Group, a Denver-based commercial real estate development company. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Reading Parashat Beha’alotkha, I couldn’t help doing a double take. Chapters 8, 9 and 10 of Numbers describe a God miraculously present in the daily lives of the Israelites. God provides cloud cover in the desert and fire by night, and explains in detail how to fashion trumpets, what order to march in, and when to offer the Passover sacrifice. Chapter 11 and 12 then abruptly shifts to complaints. The Israelites wax nostalgic for the meat, fish and other delicacies they enjoyed while slaves in Egypt. Aaron and Miriam gossip about their brother. Even Moses has a momentary lapse of confidence in God’s power. How could these people, who witnessed daily God’s power to deliver them from bondage and sustain them in the wilderness, so easily complain?
The Exodus was one of very few transitional events in Jewish history, where the essence of our peoplehood changes and where strong leadership sets the framework for Jewish society for centuries to follow. As we have learned in our Wexner seminars, the next great transition was the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the rise of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg suggests that we are in the midst of a third great transition now, in the generations following the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. Others see fundamental shifts in Jewish relationships with our large communal institutions as evidence of a transition. Particularly in North America, Judaism is becoming less centralized and more home and individual-based. Informal and grassroots gatherings are gaining importance. Formal affiliations with synagogues and other institutions are in decline. Intermarried families are becoming an increasingly significant component of Jewish communities.
Differentiating the previous two transitions – the Exodus and the destruction of the Temple – was that the Exodus was redemptive and the fall of the Temple was destructive. Both were challenging, but the nature of the challenge was different. After the trauma of 70 C.E., Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and other great leaders of the day pieced together a sustainable Judaism despite the violent loss of Judaism’s central institution. They did this by building new institutions – the synagogue, prayer and Torah study – but also by reinforcing a link to the past. The traditional liturgy longs for a return to Zion and a rebuilding of the Temple. To this day we pray by the ruins of that great edifice.
The Exodus, in contrast, was redemptive. The challenges were great. A nation that had never provided for itself suddenly needed to, and in a hostile desert environment no less. While their complaint for food was not trivial (food is, after all, a basic necessity), the Israelites erred in failing to recognize the redemptive nature of their transition. They longed to return to the old paradigm where basic needs were provided at the expense of autonomy. Although Moses occasionally faltered (as he did in this parsha), he succeeded as a leader because he saw that the Exodus was a moment of redemption. Solutions to the nation’s problems were to be found by forging ahead and not by looking back to Egypt.
In grappling with the challenges facing our Jewish community, we must first determine if the transition we are undergoing is redemptive or destructive. I would suggest that, like the Exodus, we are in the midst of a redemptive change. New patterns of Jewish communal affiliation in North America are the result not of an external force but of unprecedented freedom and security. Antisemitism, while clearly not vanquished, is no longer a daily reality for most North American Jews. We are able to integrate and participate at the highest levels of North American politics and culture. We have unprecedented access to information. We can float between Jewish and non-Jewish institutions with ease, we can join and leave groups, and we can shop in a global marketplace of ideas and cultures. Even intermarriage, bemoaned as a “crisis” in our community, is the result not of restricting choices but of new options open to us.
In this sense, we are like that first generation in the wilderness. This is not to say that our challenges are artificial. Our community’s challenges, like those facing the Israelites in the wilderness, are profound and staggering. But perhaps today’s solutions lie in recognizing the redemptive nature of our transition, forging ahead, and rethinking the paradigms of our community. In short, we should be more like Moses and we should avoid being like the Israelites who complained to him. We should not long for a return to the “good old days” when Jews were more insular and when it was a given that Jews would affiliate with and support their communal institutions. We should march ahead into this wilderness and, with strong leadership, be confident that the new paradigm – however it takes shape – will further strengthen and enhance our community.