Today is:

Contact Us

Congregation Or Shalom
835 Darby Paoli Road
Berwyn, PA 19312
Tel: 610-644-9086


Kami Knapp Schechter

Andrew Levin

Education Director:
Larisa Averbakh

Office Manager:
Lauren Porter

Support Our Advertisers

Dvar July 12 2019 and July 13 2019

July 13, 2019

Loss of Miriam:

There is no magic answer to loss. Nothing, not even time, will make the pain completely disappear. But loss is transformative if it is met with faith. Faith is our chance to make sense of loss, to cope with the stone that rolls around in the hollow of our stomachs when something we loved, something we thought was forever, is suddenly gone. — Rabbi David Wolpe, a contemporary American rabbi (from Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times)

When I read this quote by Rabbi David Wolpe I think of this week’s parsha, Chukat. Within one quote the imagery of the parsha is brought to mind: magic, loss, faith, and stone. If studied on a deeper level we notice that the parsha centers around the theme of death. It begins with the ritual of the Red Heifer, an esoteric ritual that historically has been proven to have only happened 9 times from the time of Moses to the destruction of the second temple in 70 B.C. This esoteric ritual is a fascinating piece of Torah to study with lots of complexity but I hope to save that for another time.

What I want to focus on this weekend is the climax of our parsha when Moses strikes a rock twice, in anger. In chapter 20 of parshat Chukkat Moses becomes angry with the people because they complain, yet once again. The people come to Moses complaining of thirst, Miriam has just died and with her death comes the cessation of water. The Israelites respond with the same argument: why did you make us leave Egypt where we had water and food, to wander in this desert just to be malnourished and now dying of thirst. Uncharacteristically, instead of going directly to G-d, Moses and Aaron enter the tent of meeting and collapse: “they fell on their faces.” G-d comes to them and says: take a rod and before the people speak to a rock and water will come forth from this rock. 

The people congregate around Moses and the rock. He proclaims: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Instead of speaking to the rock he strikes it twice and water streams forth. Because of his anger and having struck the rock twice, G-d punishes Moses to die outside the land of Israel.

Moses’ anger is odd, it is uncharacteristic, what is the meaning of striking a rock? Commentators have deliberated over this question for centuries and two theories have come forth. From my own personal study I now realize why there are two theories. This is a two-parter dvar! Tonight I will speak to one theory: Moses strikes out in anger because of his grief of Miriam’s death. And tomorrow I will speak to the second theory: Moses sees a generational gap between himself and the people.

Let us return to Rabbi Wolpe’s quote. Based on the summary I presented, does this not sound exactly where Moses may be emotionally after the loss of his sister. Moses and Miriam were close throughout her entire life. Miriam was the one to save her brother by placing him in a basket and watching over him until he is taken in by the Egyptian princess. She had faith in his leadership and encouraged him to lead when he had doubts about his “inability to speak”. Miriam was the “rock”, the support and sustenance for both Moses’ leadership and the people. After the Exodus, as the Israelites stood on the threshold of freedom (crossing the red sea), she encouraged them to cross and as they put their feet on dry land, away from Egypt, she led the joyous celebration of freedom by singing and dancing. She was a prophetess. Our Rabbis attempted to understand how the Israelites could wander in the desert for 40 years without a consistent water source. Rabbis in the Talmud surmise that because of Miriam’s merit as a prophetess water followed her throughout the desert. Rashi elaborates on the Talmud: “It really was a water–flowing rock which rolled alongside of Israel wherever it went. This was the rock that Moses struck, because he did not want to draw forth any water for Israel, because Miriam had died (Taanit 9a).” 

This Torah portion teaches us that Moses not only was grieving Miriam’s death he was physically feeling his loss. We understand his pain by his uncharacteristic actions after her death. When faced with the complaining by the Israelites, a scene that happened time and time again, instead of going to G-d, Moses and Aaron just collapse. Imagine the scene, their sister dies and they are deep in mourning. Moses is approached and challenged to solve a problem and he has no energy, he has no will to help others or even do his job. His response is to collapse. I’m sure many of us have reacted this way when experiencing deep grief. I remember when my father passed away unexpectedly in December of 2016, there were moments time and time again in the year following his death, where things were just too much. I had no energy, I couldn’t even think of others because all my attention and energy was focused on the deep pit of sadness that seemed to be with me always.

When G-d commands him to go speak to a rock for water, he still remains in this state of grief. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks states: “Bereavement leaves us deeply vulnerable. In the midst of loss we can find it hard to control our emotions. We make mistakes. We act rashly. We suffer from a momentary lack of judgement. These are common symptoms even for ordinary humans like us. In Moses’ case, however, there was an additional factor. He was a prophet, and grief can occlude or eclipse the prophetic spirit…It was God, after all, who told him to “speak to the rock.” But somehow the message did not penetrate his consciousness fully. That was the effect of grief.”

Amidst his grief, Moses is punished. He is told he will never enter the promised land, the land he searched for for 40 years. He was told he would remain outside the land to die while his people entered and settled in the land of Israel, given to them by G-d. G-d’s punishment is harsh and leaves me wondering why G-d would act in such an uncaring way to someone experiencing deep pain. Perhaps the role of G-d in this parsha is meant to speak to the common feeling of anger and frustration towards G-d upon the loss of a loved one. Maybe the punishment is but a part of the story, but the relatable part of this story is the deep pain of grief, the lack of energy to continue on, and also the sometimes palpable anger we have towards G-d for taking away our loved one. Not only does Moses experience the loss of his sister which causes him to lash out in anger, he now must deal with the loss of never reaching his lifelong goal. But what if the role of G-d is not meant to help us identify our anger with G-d upon the loss of a loved one? If we look at G-d’s punishment I feel uncomfortable, that the benevolent G-d I have faith in would be so cruel to a person in mourning. So perhaps there is another theory for G-d’s punishment, perhaps there is even another theory as to why Moses strikes the rock? We will delve into this second theory tomorrow but may we use this explanation of why Moses strikes out in grief to remind us that grief is a long process and can lead us to do uncharacteristic actions. May we strive to see the pain in others so we can help them along the difficult journey of grief. 

I welcome your thoughts and reflections!


Yesterday we learned about the important scene in this week’s parsha when Moses responds to the people’s complaining by striking a rock twice. Although commanded by G-d to speak to the rock, Moses is punished because he strikes the rock with anger, not once, but twice. His punishment is to remain outside the land of Israel until his death. The new generation of Israelites are to enter the land but with a new leader, Joshua.

Jews have debated as to why Moses struck the rock for centuries. Two theories have surfaced, one, as we learned about last night, is Moses’ deep pain and the grief of losing his sister which leads him to cope with “normal” situations in an uncharacteristic way. I too came to this theory again and again when studying the parsha but only this year did I think, if Moses reacted the way he did because of grief why would G-d, especially a benevolent G-d, punish him by taking away his biggest dream, to enter and settle the land of Israel? Personally, this doesn’t sit well with me. I have always been one to lean towards an all benevolent G-d at the expense of G-d being all-powerful. So based on my theology, and perhaps it is yours as well, why would my benevolent G-d do such a harsh thing to a man who was doing the best he could in the midst of profound grief. Perhaps G-d’s punishment was part of a bigger plan to help Moses realize his time of leadership had come to an end.

Which leads to the second theory as to why Moses struck the rock out of anger: a response to generational gaps and challenging of his leadership. Miriam’s death, occurs in the first month of the 40th year. Moses has been led the people for a very long time. G-d’s punishment of wandering for 40 years was so that the generation who left Egypt would be punished for their doubt in conquering the land of Israel and a new generation would arise to go forth and settle. So, now 40 years later, Moses is leading a generation who has not known slavery, who has formed it’s identity on wandering in the desert with the goal of Israel. Moses on the other hand is of the former generation, he remembers slavery visourely and this most likely is a recurring underlying trope in his leadership. Not only does his generation want to get to Israel they also want to get away from slavery. Because of their different identities and experiences, it begs the question how much could the people and Moses relate to one another?

Perhaps this was the communal dynamic happening well before Miriam’s death. As we read in last week’s parsha, the people are questioning whether Moses has been leading dictated by G-d or making his own leadership decisions.  Perhaps Miriam’s death triggered Moses to finally realize, I can’t relate to this new generation, in essence maybe my leadership has reached its prime and perhaps they will demand I step down, right before he is to reach his life goal! Therefore, Moses reacts to their complaining in an uncharacteristic way, instead of going to G-d to plead on the behalf of the people, he “falls on his face.” Moses justified the punishment of 40 years because he believed that the new generation would be even stronger by not knowing the trauma of slavery. But unfortunately, when without water, the new generation responds in the same way as the old generation and this is the breaking point for Moses. Not only do they have no idea what sacrifices were taken to come this far, but they did not learn from the last generation and now just appear to be entitled and coddled. Coming to this realization, of course, one would be angry and frustrated. There would be feelings of I’m not doing this again, perhaps feeling his leadership is being challenged and perhaps his identity, an anger towards the new generation that they have no idea or appreciation for how much his generation sacrificed to bring them to where they are today.

So, Moses lashes out at the new generation. “Here now, you rebels, are we to bring water out of this rock?” He says, in essence, you ungrateful people you expect us to find the solution for you by miraculously bringing water out of this rock? Not only does Moses realize he may not be able to lead this generation, perhaps G-d put this stumbling block in front of Moses to evaluate whether he could also lead the new generation. Perhaps the people weren’t testing him but G-d was. Moses cannot lead the next generation from a place of anger and resentment. So G-d appoints Joshua. Bava Batra states: “The face of Moses was like the sun, the face of Joshua was like the moon.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks elaborates: “The difference is that sunlight is so strong it leaves no work for a candle to do, whereas a candle can illuminate when the only other source of light is the moon. Joshua empowered his generation more than a figure as strong as Moses would have done.” Due to their experiences, Moses’ generation needed authoritative leadership so they could forge a new identity, the new generation needed empowerment because identity formation was not it’s task, reaching the promised land was.

I gather that this all sounds familiar. It has been an age old challenge for faith groups, and we are feeling it deeply right now in our Jewish world. The new generation has very different ideas and views for the future of the Jewish people and the previous generation is reacting. I imagine the same thoughts as Moses are coming up: That last generation is so out of touch with what’s needed for today’s world. This new generation has no respect for the past nor the sacrifices that were made for them. This is very real in our Jewish communities. Thereby the role of the Rabbi has been forced and blessed to create a bridge between both generations. Honoring and acknowledging the legacy of the previous generation which made today the beautiful, free, and rich world it is, while also encouraging creativity and excitement in the new generation in the midst of a time when a community focus is becoming foreign. But not only does the Rabbi have more responsibility, all members, both previous generations and new must work to create a bridge. This is our work, in this synagogue and every Jewish organization throughout the world. 

I propose we keep the following as our cornerstones as we work towards building this bridge. Let us honor the sacrifices and legacy of the previous generation, let us thank them for committing their lives to making sure there was a new generation and insuring it is of depth and richness. Let us continue to invite them to be active consultants and contributors to the change happening today. For the new generation, let us encourage their creative ideas based on the evolving Jewish culture of today, let us acknowledge the unique challenges this generation of Jews are up against. Let us trust them that they hold what is best for the community, deeply appreciate the work up to this point, and know that they will create and facilitate a beautiful future generation of Judaism relevant to its time. Let each generation remember that when your generation was birthed, you too were perceived to be a challenge to the previous generation and your controversial, at the time, new ideas may have caused doubt in the continuation of Jewish faith and culture. But what was controversial produced great growth and beauty to our rich culture and history. It helped Judaism be relevant to the times and gave this new generation egalitarianism, personal spirituality, and much more. 

Bridging the generation gap is not an easy process but please know that I take this work very seriously. I believe it is my role to remind us to honor and include those who have trailed before us while also encourage trust and authority in the new generation. Let us learn from Moses that leadership has its seasons and just as Moses is grieving his loss of Miriam in this parsha, he also is grieving his loss of leadership, and a feeling of loss is appropriate! As the generation who came long before us, thank you Moses for continuing to teach us this lesson and know that your leadership will continue to inspire us to more forward. 

I welcome your thoughts and reflections!

Which theory do you relate to?

Other thoughts on the parsha?