Our Brother's Keepers

Dedicated to the Memory of Charles Fodor (1936 - June 9,2018)
זיכרונו לברכה‬

CHUKAT NUMBERS 19:1 – 22:1
23 JUNE 2018 / 10 TAMUZ 5778

Parsha Summary 
God instructs Moses and Aaron regarding the red heifer; Miriam dies; Moses hits a rock to bring forth water rather than speaking to it; Aaron dies.

I am an only child. 

More or less. 

My father has seven children. I have three half-siblings, three step, and I never lived with any of them. 

My mom has one child: me. 

I learned last week that Karen people refer to one another by relationship, not name: cousin, uncle, sister, brother. What’s more, Karen people refer to everyone this way. A same-age woman I would call “sister”, an older man I would call “uncle”. There are no strangers; everyone is family. 

I only know about what it means to be a sibling as a witness, but I have relationships and an imagination. With the perspective of an only child, I see.

One of the reasons keeping siblings together matters when family systems are disrupted is the unique relationships siblings can share. They are often the longest-lasting relationships a person will ever have. Siblings are there from the beginning, they are often there when parents die, and even after children are grown. 

Often, but not always.

As my dear friend Fred Haeusler wrote recently, 

The last time my father saw his youngest brother, Manfred, the Nazis removed him from his family and sent [him] to a line of young children. The last time he saw his other brother was when he immediately joined Manfred, so he wouldn’t be alone. My father never saw either of them again. This is what happens when a government separates children from parents.

In our country, today, right now, children are being separated from parents with no plan for reunification. Siblings are being separated from one another, and siblings who are together are being denied the right to comfort each other. No hugs. It’s policy. 

In Chukat, for the first time since his story began, Moses loses control over his emotions. When the people find themselves without water at Kadesh and complain to Moses and Aaron, God tells the leaders to take the staff and speak to the rock and water will emerge. Out of character, Moses does not do as God says. He and Aaron gather the people, and distraught he shouts, “Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Then “Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff” (Num. 20:10-11) exactly as he had done forty years earlier, back when God did tell him to hit a rock (Ex. 17:6). 

Many in our tradition say this moment cost Moses and Aaron their chance of leading the people into the Promised Land. They debate whether or not his anger was the reason, his act of striking the rock instead of speaking to it, the implication that it was he and Aaron bringing water from the rock, or something else that determined for God that Moses was not the leader to bring the people into Israel.

Maybe we are missing the point.

After singing at the Sea, the people travelled for three days before finding water, and it was bitter and they complained. God showed Moses how to make the water sweet (Ex. 15:22-26).

A few chapters later at Rephidim they again found no water and complained. Moses despaired, “What am I to do with these people?” (Ex. 17:1-7) God commands Moses hit the rock, he does, and water flows.

This time was different.

We started our story in Chukat at the rock, but that isn’t the beginning of this story.

“The whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried.” (Num. 20:1)  “Now there was no water for the community.”

Now there was no water. Now. After Miriam died.

The Talmud understands these verses to mean that a well of water followed us in the desert in Miriam’s merit. (Ta’anit 9a) Miriam’s enthusiasm for the miracle of the sea splitting made her the link between water miracle and water miracle. (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 1:2) The Zohar explains that it was Miriam watching over her brother at the water of the Nile, her love and her connection with her sibling, that brought about the miracle of Miriam’s well (Zohar 3:103a).

Water is the beginning of our story. When God began to create there was darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water. (Genesis 1:2) Before God speaks anything into being, there is God, and there is water. Harkening back to Cain and Abel, when Miriam stood in the water, leaned over the water to push Moses toward Pharaoh’s daughter, and kept watch by the water . . . she was her brother’s keeper. (Genesis 4)

Next time you take a drink of water or swim in a lake, river, or ocean, I invite you to think about it hanging out with the Source of everything in the beginning. Think about where it has been, what it has seen, how it sustains us, and how it connects us. 

This moment at Kadesh is the first time in his life Moses had to face the world, and face our people, without his sister. His big sister. The one who had the chutzpah to speak to a princess and arrange for him to be nursed by his own mother. Because of Miriam, Moses grew up knowing who he was. Because of Miriam, he belonged to a people. She led those people by his side, and even when she and Aaron were critical of Moses (Num. 12:1), their love for one another prevailed. Without hesitation, Moses turned to God in prayer on her behalf. She and his adoptive mother, Batya, were both married to one of his closest friends, Caleb. 

My heart aches for Moses here at Kadesh. 

I only know about sibling relationships as a witness.

But . . . I have relationships and an imagination. 

Our siblings in places like Honduras and El Salvador are choosing to make baskets and coat them in pitch and send their children down a river hoping and praying that someone will come down to the water and reach out their arms and keep them safe. 

There are laws, you say. 

It’s true. 

There are laws that aren’t rational, like the law of the red heifer that opens this parsha, there are laws of property, there are laws to guide human interaction . . . there are religious laws and secular laws . . . so many laws. 

Just as for us in Egypt, there are laws and decrees that have made life so dangerous and intolerable for our siblings that they are choosing to bring or send their children to us. And we are tearing their children from their arms, and we are putting their children in detention camps, and we are separating their children from one another. 

No hugs. It’s . . . policy. 

The whole of the Torah is an answer to the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

Moses and Miriam and Aaron embody the declarative “YES”.

Our government is issuing decrees, and people are suffering. 

This week we are standing at Kadesh again, remembering Miriam, remembering Aaron – he also dies in this parsha, hearts aching for Moses, and I don’t know about you, but I am thirsty. I am thirsty for justice and love for our nieces and nephews and for our siblings who have come to us for help. 

My friends, I have been posting numbers to call, petitions to sign, and places to donate so that immigration lawyers can reach out their arms like Batya. We can spend five minutes a day, ten minutes, being keepers of our siblings. We can learn what it will take to reunite these children with their families – and we can start working on it. We can choose to be followers of Moses and Miriam and Aaron, and the midwives, and Batya, and Caleb and Joshua, and the daughters of Zelophechad.

I think the Karen people have it right.  

We thought that when God said, “It is not good for human beings to be alone,” (Genesis 2:18) God responded by creating a couple. What the Karen people understand, and we would do well to learn, is that God didn’t stop with that couple. God created us to be family.