The ultimate questions in life are those questions thrust upon us which we must answer … we have no choice. The ultimate questions in life are those thrust upon us where something is going to happen whether we swing at the pitch or choose to ignore it.
The ultimate COVID-19 Clergy Question is the question thrust upon Moses in Matot-Masei. The wisdom of Kohelet, better known as Ecclesiastes, is our case law, our proof text. In Ecclesiastes, written a long time after Matot-Masei, Kohelet writes, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Therefore, if we take as our premise “There is nothing new under the sun,” then what challenge did Moses face in Matot-Masei that transformed into what I am calling the ultimate Clergy Question of the COVID-19 challenge? It is simply this: “How important is it to keep my congregation together?” Its corollaries are: “What will it take to keep my congregation together?” And, “Will I and my team take the journey to keep my congregation together?” If you ignore the question, you might as well look in the mirror and ask did you build the type of sanctuary where G-D wants to dwell among you (Exodus 25:8)?
Matot-Masei means “tribes and journeys.” MyJewishLearning.Com takes an enormous seven bullet points to summarize the parsha. Each bullet point could have its own 25 minute sermon:
1.Moses describes the laws of oaths.
2.The Israelites battle the Midianites.
3.The tribes of Reuven and Gad request to dwell outside of the Land of Israel
4.The tribes of Reuven and Gad promise to help out the other tribes while not living in the land of Israel.
5.G-D tells Moses exactly where each tribe will live.
6.G-D clarifies the laws of murder.
7.The daughters of Zelophehad receive their inheritance.
And I add my own, theological point 8, “How can a G-D who loves peace, justice and compassion, pleads with us to have the same characteristics, how can such a G-D compel us to become residents of a land “promised to us” by only preparing for war and battles, and not even considering peaceful coexistence? Isn’t there a similarity with a secondary or tertiary question of our time, the question of the moral reflection on most of the countries that came to “explore,” the notable exception being the Dutch, perhaps a few others, who came with the idea of planting the cross and throwing out anyone who was already living here?
Back to the parsha. Thirty-nine years in the desert, knowing the total would be 40. On the east bank of the Jordan River. The Promised Land in sight. Already reluctance from some whose patience wore thin and lamented, “At least we had fish in Egypt. Perhaps we go back.” A turnover of generations … a major reason for the 40 years. A recent split in the ranks … a representative from each of the twelve tribes goes to scout the land, 10 say no way, and two say we can do it, just as G-D has promised us.
And now, again, two of the twelve tribes are not in unison with the other 10. It was supposed to be a midbar, a wilderness we would be eager to leave. BUT, now, the tribes of Reuben and Gad say, wait a minute, this ain’t so bad. This land here in what we thought was a wilderness, this land is ideal grazing country for our herds and flocks. You go on without us.
Our family is not in one piece. Moses faces this with a fresh break in his heart because his own family is already not in one piece. Two parshiyot before this week, back in Chukat, Moses accompanies Aaron, his brother, to Aaron’s death. Together, they go up the mountain back in Chukat, together the elaborate robes come off Aaron, and then Moses comes down the mountain … alone. Perhaps. Back in parsha Chukat, it was only a preview. Because right here in the second twin in this parsha, in Masei, in Numbers 33:38, we read, “And Aaron the priest went up on Mount Hor by the order of the Lord, and died there.”
Moses, part of his family now gone, faces that two parts of this family, his congregation, want to split from the others, with already a fresh split in his heart.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks writes, “Moses reminded the men of Reuben and Gad what had happened in the incident of the spies. The spies demoralized the people, 10 of [the 12] saying that they could not conquer the land.” Now, two of the 12 say we will not be whole.
There was no doubt in Moses’ mind that his congregation had to be whole and functioning as a whole. This might mean that 10 tribes were with Moses in one place, and two might be distant, or remote, or in today’s language, via Zoom.
Moses made it work. He negotiated. He compromised. As Rabbi Sacks says, Moses used all four steps published thousands of years later by Harvard University in its classic text, Getting to Yes.
Moses knew there should still be one people. Moses knew his congregation must live. Moses knew there would need to be adjustments to make this live, to preserve kehila kadosh, a holy congregation. Two of the tribes would have to be remote, but only in geography.
Am Yisrael Chai was Moses’ singular guiding principle. The people of Israel must live. And the congregations of all faiths that will live better beyond COVID-19 are those that focused on the human needs, both the physical needs, and the needs that nourish our dignity. They Zoomed their services, a new verb of our times. They delivered food and masks and prayerbooks to those who needed others. The reached out with phone calls and random acts of kindness, true gemilut chasadim. Some had to be remote now, and we can still make it work.
May we be blessed to continue this outreach. Kein Yihei Ratzon, so May this be G-D’s and our will.