Thursday, June 17, 2010

Between a Rock and a Hard Place - Parshat Chukat

Parched. Thirsty. In Need of Water! These are protest banner slogans that the Nation of Israel may have made in this week's Portion, Parshat Chukat, to let Moses know about their H2O laments. This is only one of the issues that makes this is a tough portion for Moses. Aside from having the nation complaining once again with their laments of life in the desert and their longing for their Egyptian lifestyles, he looses his sister and brother. Miriam's passing is recounted towards the beginning of the portion and Aron's at the end. And then there's the story of the rock that crushes Moses's life-long dream.

Enter the complaining nation. "Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There isn't even water to drink!" Moses seeks God's help with the matter and is told to get the nation together and speak to a rock in front of everyone, commanding it to start flowing water (and it will - God's taking care of that part). Then the nation will not only have water to drink, they'll be impressed by Moses their leader and will understand that God does indeed take care of them.

But, Moses does a botch job. He hits the rock instead of talking to it nicely. Now, rewind 40 years in their desert journey and you have another incident where the nation is complaining for water. Moses asks God for help and God tells him to hit a rock in front of everyone and water will flow out for them to drink (for a refresher see Exodus chapter 17, verse 6). So Moses hits a rock with good results. Perhaps this confuses his performance in our portion. Despite the fact that he doesn't do what God commanded this time (to talk to the rock), water never the less comes out of the rock. But God then tells Moses that the deal is off and he can't lead the nation into the land of Israel. It's a really heartbreaking scene. After everything that Moses has endured as their leader, it's terrible that he won't get to that carrot at the end of the stick. He won't be allowed to enter the promised land with his people, God only lets him glance at it from afar. While this may seem totally unfair, God explains His reasoning to be "Because you didn't trust me enough to affirm my holiness in front of the nation."

However, when I was in high school I learned a different understanding of this twist in the story of Moses. In this portion there is a whole new generation than the one Moses started out leading. The group he started with has died off in the desert as punishment for their sins. This generation is a different group with different needs and the fact that Moses is treating them in the same way that he treated the previous generation may be indicative that he is no longer the right leader for them. In this light we can view Moses's early retirement as a strategic leadership decision on the part of God instead of a punishment. The nation needs a new leader who will understand them as a generation.

I learned this idea from my 11th and 12th grade Tanach (Bible) teacher, Rabbi Natti Helfgot. Rabbi Helfgot was the one who first got me excited about the text of Tanach, not only because he has such an engaging style of teaching, but because he got so visibly excited about the ideas in the text himself. I recently saw Rabbi Helfgot and many of my 23 class mates from the first graduating class of Ma'ayanot at our ten year high school reunion. It was a lot of fun to go back to the building where I participated in great extra curricular activities and learned an integrated curriculum. As an example, if we were studying Government in Social Studies, our Talmud classes were focused on Judicial law. I painted Monet's garden in art class, played on the intramural hockey team, and started a chapter of Free the Children. I switched to Ma'ayanot in the middle of 11th grade, a risky decision, but one of the best I have ever made. I really loved going to that school - I learned a ton, grew as a leader and my Jewish identity got an energy boost. It was perfect for me then but now it's a different place with a different principal, and while it made me nostalgic, maybe that's the right thing for the school. In the ten years since we have graduated, the school has grown in size and number and the population probably needed something different than us pioneers did. Akin to Moses's situation.

Well that was a nice trip down high school Memory Lane. Now it's time for the recipe. Looking over the food line in the portion, which can easily be located in the nation's complaint, a new ingredient jumped out at me that I haven't talked about yet in the book of Numbers: Grains. I recently made some tabouli that I took with me to work for lunch, and Emily requested that I share the recipe here. Tabouli is typically prepared with cooked bulgur and served cold, tossed with tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs. I like to use couscous as the base for mine, throw in some tomatoes, cucumbers, olives and mint, then squeeze fresh lemon juice over the top and toss with salt and pepper. I hope you enjoy the recipe below- it's a really wonderful summer dish. And I'm sure that nation of Israel would've been a happier bunch had they had this dish in the desert.

Couscous Tabouli

1/2 tsp salt
A drizzle of olive oil
2 cups of couscous
2.5 cups of water
2 tomatoes
1 cucumber
10 black olives (such as Kalamata olives, don't used canned olives)
3 sprigs of fresh mint leaves
2 lemons
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, add the water, salt and oil and bring to a boil over high heat. Once it reaches a boil, stir in the couscous and remove from the heat. Let the couscous sit in the pot with a cover on for 5 minutes. Then fluff with a fork and refrigerate to cool completely.

Slice the tomatoes, cucumbers and olives (de-pit the olives if they aren't already) into thin, bite size pieces. Chop the fresh mint leaves and add them, as well as the other vegetables to the cold couscous. Squeeze the lemons over the couscous mix and season with salt and pepper. Serve cold as a side dish or with tortilla chips as a snack.

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