“Oh, you have the summer off. How nice.” As a Jewish Educator, I hear that expression often. I smile politely and try not to think of how many hours I will spend preparing for next fall. And yes, while I have the summer off from standing in front of the classroom, it also means that it’s time to go and learn myself. June is not yet over and I am already in the midst of my third conference of the season, and I still have a few more to go!
This week, at The Leadership Institute summer seminar, part of a two and one-half year program for synagogue educators sponsored by JTS and HUC-JIR with funding from UJA, we are talking about experiential education. We heard from Dr. Jeffrey Kress that “Experiential education is unpacking experiences so that they have the most impact.
Every interaction is an experience.” With this in mind, I can’t help thinking of Parashat Hukkat with the course title, “Experiential Education for Israelites 101: Water vs. Death.” Water, of course, plays the role of life.
As the parasha opens, the Israelites are given the laws of the red heifer. The red heifer is used to purify those who come in contact with a dead body. When a red heifer who is at least a year old is found, it can be sacrificed, burned completely. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on the person who has come in contact with a corpse. Ashes can be reserved and used at any time. While this bizarre ritual gives the Israelites comfort on how to deal with the impurity that comes with dealing with the dead, it seems that the person to be purified also needs to fully wash themselves and their clothes. Given that the people are still trusting out this faith business, a bit of magic is helpful. And it comes just in time, for in two different scenes in this portion, Miriam dies, and then Aaron dies. In fact, in this portion, the fate is sealed for all three siblings.
After Miriam’s death, the children, I mean the Israelites, are restless and kvetchy again. They wonder where the water is. Water had been provided up until now, so I am not sure why they are all of a sudden fearful. But they complain enough for Moses and Aaron to go to God. God instructs Moses to take his rod to the rock and talk to it, and God will bring forth water. Is this the same rod that Moses used to part the sea? (What is it with the rod and water?) But Moses, inexplicably, hits the rock and God provides flowing water. I suspect that Moses had just had it with God and the Israelites and the journey. They were all pretty old at this point. And they suffer the consequences for their actions. This action is what precipitates Aaron’s death and the text tells us that this is why Moses is unable to enter the Promised Land.
Before the parasha is over we have one more reference to water. In verse 21:11, God tells Moses to assemble the people so that God might give them water. The people assemble and sing “Spring up, O well — sing unto it…” and God provides water. (Yes, I suspect this is the pasuk that inspired Debbie Friedman’s “Water in the Well.”)
So if we go back to the teaching from Dr. Kress, “Experiential education is unpacking experiences so that they have the most impact,” I think that God is essentially unpacking the experiences that would be most meaningful to the survival of the Israelites. In this case, the experiences are dramatic. The experiences of life and death in the desert. The experiences of what it means to be part of a cohesive group and what it means to not participate fully, like Korah and his gang last week’s parasha.
And what does it say about leadership? Sometimes you give the people what they want and the leaders suffer for it. But we hope, in the long run, the people will learn how to come together. And in that coming together, some new leaders might even emerge.