Forty Years Later – Beyond the Olden Days (sermon for Parashat Chukkat)

About 14 years ago when I was still a student rabbi I would frequently go to a university friend’s school, where she was a teacher, and talk to the children in the primary school about Judaism. Invariably this coincided with the festival of Passover (Pesach). I can tell you nothing makes you more memorable to children than bringing food in for them to try, though nothing ingratiates you to the staff less than leaving crumbs of matzah (a cracker style bread) all over the carpet. As I retold the story about how the Exodus from Egypt describes an age a very long time ago, one of the children asked me – was it black and white. I didn’t understand, until the teacher said – the children think that if something is very old it must be in black and white…like old things on television. Well in proof of how quickly we have changed in 14 years, yesterday my daughter was talking to my wife in the car at school drop off. She wondered how we ever knew where we were going in the car when there was no computer to tell us. As my wife explained about maps and A-Zs, my daughter figured it out and said, “Was that the olden days?”

Yes, we’re now officially from the olden days.

One generation to the next. Perhaps our age is one in which the change in 14 years never mind 40 years has never been more rapid. I’m not sure even the industrial revolution could compare with the advances we have witnessed. Those of you who grew up digitally native won’t ever understand that we used to have things like tape cassettes and a television programme called Tomorrow’s World which ran an April’s Fool joke persuading people their television could be a touch screen.

But the condensing of the speed of change means that how we curate our lives and our world today has also never been more important. If the Bible was being written today, I don’t think we’d be talking about chunks of 40 years, but rather chunks of perhaps 15 years – never mind our attention span, you can imagine Moses praying on Mount Sinai for a couple of minutes not 40 days and even then there would be an ad-break! One generation to the next, from the olden days to the future.

Our portion today should really be called ‘Forty years later – beyond the olden days’. After forty years the older generation of the Exodus have died. The new generation, still under the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, is preparing for the next leg of the journey. This Torah portion is of immense importance because when read in full, it details the death of Miriam, the death of Aaron and the promise that Moses will not lead the Children of Israel into the promised land. It is, for me, one of the most pivotal turning points of the Torah. It is the moment at which the new generation realise they may have to fend for themselves, that they may not be provided for by their leaders at all times. It is the moment when the miracles of the past, like the pillar of cloud – a Divine satnav, are no longer part of memorable lived experience but an olden days. No wonder the anxiety boils over with a bitter complaint about the lack of water.

Moses, Miriam and Aaron have done all they can to lay foundations for the future. No more can be done – the mantle, or more accurately, the robes of leadership must be handed over. Consider how difficult it must have been to be part of the ritual:

“They ascended Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. Moses stripped Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar, and Aaron died there on the summit of the mountain. When Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain, the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last. All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.” (Numbers 20:27-29)

“Ledor vador nagid godlecha – from generation to generation we will tell of Your greatness.”

That is what we say as one of our central prayers in the daily service. From generation to generation. So, the portion asks us: in those moments of transition from the olden days to the next generation, have we done all we can to lay the foundations for the future? Forty years from now – a new generation will be in our place. Our job will be ‘done’ (we will have achieved as much as we can) and our children will be at the helm – the new leaders –that’s all of the young people in the congregation this morning by the way.

Forty years. What is the legacy of our time, of our civilisation, the society that saw the innocent optimism of the new millennium vanish to be replaced by conflict, famine, poverty and stark pessimism. The news yesterday of three separate and devastating terror attacks in France, Tunisia and Kuwait reminds us of how routine these things now seem to have become. So what legacy will we determine to leave.

The legacy must surely be that just as we work hard, we will also know that the task at hand is not easy. That we must persevere. There are people who will pervert the great values and ideas of religion, there are people who will abuse power and corrupt ideals and there are people who will raise up noble truths, inspire and lead humanity to better itself, make peace between parties, to progress. Just like the other news yesterday, that of great progress, from the Supreme Court in the United States legalising equal marriage across the whole country on the eve of Gay Pride here in London. We must persevere to achieve something positive in this world for ourselves and our future. We can restore hope.

And as we reflect on the legacy the olden days generation of the Torah in our portion, our reading also teaches us that not only must we strive to work for the best for the next generation but the moment of transmission when generations kiss is one of potential tenderness and a chance to let go.

God said to Moses, “Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and take them up to the top of the mountain.” (Numbers 20:25)

This is the moment that Moses is to take Aaron up the mountain to die. There is a question asked of the text here – which really boils down the question of why Moses has to take Aaron up the mountain. Why don’t Moses, Aaron and Eleazar climb the mountain together?

The answer is suggested by Midrash Tanhuma from perhaps 1500 years ago (Chukkat, siman 17) states:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses: Take Aaron and strip Aaron.” God said to Moses – behold you should comfort Aaron, for he will pass on his crown [of priestly duties] to his sons, which is not the same as you will not cause your sons to inherit…

Listen to the moment being described here. Aaron knows that this is the moment at which he will die. Moses, instructed by God, touchingly persuades Aaron to be part of the moment. He says to him – “this journey of 40 years…The journey that brings our role to an end here at this mountain…It doesn’t end here”. “Aaron, my brother,” Moses says, “when I die there will be no-one to pass on my inheritance to – this is it, it will not be my sons who inherit the mantle of the prophet of prophets, who knew God face to face. But you, you have the priesthood and it is your sons who will carry on your responsibilities, your crown, after you. This, my brother is the moment to pass on your inheritance.”

Aaron is persuaded with words, Rashi (the 11th century French rabbi) explains: He is comforted by Moses saying to him – you should be happy that you will see your crown given to your sons in a way that I do not merit. With that news, Aaron let’s go of what is his and his sons are able to take ownership of their inheritance. Literally being stripped of his sacred vestments for them to be given to his son.

We spend our lives building and striving to create a world to hand on to the next generation. Each generation prepares its legacy. But the moment of letting go never comes easily, at least not for most of us. We must be coaxed, persuaded, cajoled and occasionally stripped of what is no longer ours to possess, of that which must be freed for the next generation. I can look back nostalgically at my cassette tapes and A-Z road atlases, but at some point I have to be comfortable with the realisation that it is and I am from the ‘olden days’.

I began by saying that this portion should be titled ‘Forty Years Later – Beyond the Olden Days’. And I asked a question – have we done all we can to prepare our world (whether that’s the Jewish world or our ever shrinking planet), to make it better. Have we persevered even in the madness of the news stories that dominated the headlines on days like yesterday. Have we created something to fill our souls with hope for the future? And when we can answer that question in the affirmative we then have to ask ourselves – are we ready to let go. Are we prepared to pass on the inheritance and acknowledge at some point that we have to contract ourselves to make space for the next generation. We are not to be the ones who reach the promised land – it never works like that. But we can do our bit. And the next generation must also step up, must take their stand in the stream of history. These moments are constant, so we pray that God, our tradition, and our community will guide us in wisdom to love the olden days, to build in the present and to give hope for the future: from generation to generation to generation. May this be God’s will and let us say: Amen.

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