We open the Torah this week on our ancestors out in the Wilderness. They are in crisis. They are wandering, without much sense of where they are headed. They are hungry, without much assurance that they will find sustenance. They are frightened, without much confidence that they will be comforted. They complain to Moses. He has stood up to the Pharaoh, and led the people from Egypt to this Wilderness. But now even Moses is at his wit’s end. He doesn’t know how to comfort the people, and cries out to God in utter frustration: Did I give birth to this people. . . that they whine and complain to me? I cannot carry this people, for it is too much for me! (Numbers 11.12-14) God’s advice? Don’t try to do this alone. Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place with you. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them: they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone. (Numbers 11.16)
The Israelites had been enslaved and beaten down by ruthless tyrants for 400 years. Now they were free, but they still had no sense of what that meant. They didn’t understand that with freedom comes another set of burdens—of responsibility, of sacrifice, of thoughtfulness and creativity, of working with leadership to form a consensus. In this exchange between Moses and God, our Torah seeks to convey this message of personal responsibility and group responsibility, if indeed, we want to exercise our freedom responsibly.
My thoughts this week, and perhaps some of yours, have focused upon the 49th anniversary of the assassination of NY Senator Robert F. Kennedy, in the Ambassador Hotel of Los Angeles, as he inched closer to the Democratic nomination for President. Bobby Kennedy evolved dramatically over his life, particularly in the five years between his brother John’s death and his own. He understood more deeply the pain in this country, and how he believed he could help us to rise up as a nation, to try to alleviate it together. While there are many statements he made that are particularly apt in this regard, perhaps this one is particularly emblematic. Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed on June 6, 1968.
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
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