This week, I was honored to give the following d’var Torah at the annual Women Cantors’ Network conference in Austin, Texas. The goal of the WCN is to promote the practice of Judaism through the dissemination, development, and commissioning of Jewish music and rituals for clergy and lay leaders serving in the cantorate. There is no better way to spend four days in June than with these lovely women!
Boker tov! As some of you know, I’ve been binge watching some television shows that I seemed to have missed in the last 20 years or so. Can’t imagine what I was doing… Maybe it’s just that I am in Texas, but as I read this week’s Parashat Chukkat, I couldn’t help thinking about one of my recent binges, Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights takes place in Dillon, Texas, a fictional town that is all about its football. The radio talks about football and the past heroes of teams are revered. And the key to that football team is their leader, Coach Taylor, and his wife, Mrs. T. Together they change the lives of community and in some cases, lead them out of their Mitzrayim. Coach T works to help students get college scholarships, and as the guidance counselor Mrs. T works toward the same goals. And the town’s biggest fear, no matter which side of Dillon they are on, is the Taylors will leave. How will the Dillon Panthers find their way out of Mitzrayim without the Taylors?
In this parasha, the Israelites could ask the same question. Not about the Panthers’ journey, but of their own leaders. Several fateful events happen in this week’s portion and if I had been an Israelite on that journey, I too might have been rattled. In the portion that we read this morning, the traditional first aliyah is divided into three sections, and we learn about the Red Heifer and rules of purification for those who are around dead bodies. The part that you will hear on Shabbat includes the death of Miriam and Aaron, and Aaron’s transfer of priestly leadership to Eleazar. In between those events, the people kvetch, again, that there is no water. We’ve all taught this story a million times. God tells Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock. Moses is frustrated and he hits the rock. For that transgression he is told that he will never enter the land of Canaan. So here we are, the fate is sealed for our three shomrim. How will the people survive? How will they get where they need to go without their leaders?
Fortunately, just like in Dillon, the Israelite leaders were truly leaders. Just as Aaron made sure to transfer the priestly powers before he died, Moses found his successors and nurtured them. As Sam Walton said, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.” And as we’ll see over these next couple of months’ readings, which translates to years of time for the Israelite people, the people have matured and leaders are developed.
Spoiler alert: the Taylors leave Dillon and the team goes on. The coaches that Coach Taylor trained take on the task of leading the team and a new generation of players moves on too.