Global Jewish Reflections | Moving Boulders (and Building Jewish Community) Together
This week's Torah portion, Vaiera, reminds us of the power of the collective to tackle communal programs, Rabbi Joshua Mikutis writes.
By Rabbi Joshua Mikutis - Jewish Learning Designer, JDC Entwine | January 19, 2021
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
We all know the moments in life when we confront an unsolvable challenge. Our heart rate accelerates, sweat starts to form on the brow, and we’re suddenly short of breath. We feel overwhelmed, uncertain, fearful. But then a thought occurs: I haven’t asked anyone to help me — I think I’m alone, but maybe all I need to do is ask and my solitude will come to an end. Then maybe I can address what lies before me.
One of my favorite Hasidic stories details a father and son traveling together. Their journey is seamless, until they find a rock blocking their path. The boy, aspiring to be the valiant hero, uses different means to tackle this obstacle. A lasso fails, when the rope barely fits the boulder only to fray from friction. Gunpowder mucks up a storm of dust, but once it fades, the solitary rock is intact. He resolves to rely on his own strength. He poses like an Olympic sprinter and dashes towards it — only to crash, his shoulder bruised and the rock unmoved.
His father asks him gently, “My son, have you really tried everything?” The boy cries out affirmatively, his body aching from his collision. Then he feels his father’s hand on his shoulder.
“No, you haven’t tried everything. You haven’t asked me for help.”
In this week’s Parsha Vaeira, God announces dramatic plans to Moses: Moses will lead the revolution, liberate the Israelites from the bondage of Egyptian slavery, and lead them to freedom.
I imagine Moses heard this news as a colossal rock which he is required to move. I hear his heart palpitations and feel his shortness of breath as he wondered how he would accomplish this titanic task on his own. But he forges ahead — he tells the Israelites the grand plan and fails spectacularly.
“But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.” Rashi, the 11th-century French commentator, sees the Israelites as having their own difficulties breathing: “If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps, and he cannot draw long breaths.” Here, the Israelites confront their own impossible barrier. After 400 years of cruel slavery, why should they expect anything should change? What cause do they have to believe in a better future?
Moses returns to God who reconfigures their strategy. Instead of going back to the Israelites, Moses must now head directly to the seat of power — Pharaoh himself. And here, Moses experiences one of the most memorable crises of faith:
Moses appealed to the LORD, saying, “See, I am of impeded speech; how then should Pharaoh heed me!”
While some suggest that Moses struggled to literally speak, Sforno, a 15th-century Italian commentator, interprets the issue to stem from Moses’ fear of loneliness. His impeded speech came as a result of the fear he would have to encounter Pharaoh alone, instead of with his brother, Aaron. Moses’ response is understandable. Who among us has not seen that boulder ahead and thought: How can I do this alone?
God is sensitive to Moses’ fear and makes it clear: this is not a question of you in the singular, but you in the collective. God says, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet.”
What does it mean that Aaron will act as Moses’ prophet? Rashi thinks it means interpreter, and his grandson, Rashbam, thinks it means spokesperson. Whatever it means, though, it is clear that God has put Aaron in relationship with Moses, so Moses will not be alone. Moses’ fear prompts God to give him a partner.
Like the Hasidic story, the task by ourselves might seem impossible. But the task, when addressed as a collective, is something that we can do. Throughout Moses’ negotiations with Pharaoh, Aaron is ever at his side. Moses is never alone.
One of JDC’s most powerful responsibilities and values is our commitment to acting as warriors in the fight against loneliness. I think of the Russian-speaking Jewish young professionals who volunteer to staff JDC Entwine’s “Babushka Hotline.” From thousands of miles away, they hop onto a video call and spend time with elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union — men and women whom the pandemic has isolated and kept from traditional opportunities to gather in community. When one of these young volunteers spends their time kibbitzing with elderly clients, they are actively saying: “You are not alone. You see that boulder in front of you? We can move it together.” Across the globe, JDC embodies this ethos: Wherever Jews are in the world, they are not alone.
Across the globe, JDC embodies this ethos: Wherever Jews are in the world, they are not alone.
This is a principle that’s become all the more clear during the COVID-19 crisis. Community is an existential necessity. We need others and others need us.
When we see rocks blocking our way, we might not be able to move them by ourselves, but we can find a way forward as a community.
Rabbi Joshua Mikutis is the Jewish Learning Designer and Rabbinic Director of the Weitzman-JDC Fellowship at JDC Entwine.