Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger

Kehila vs. Eida

The imposing if not foreboding building is not new to me. I have seen it many times. It houses a synagogue and an impressive array of communal services, worlds separating us philosophically and practically, unfortunately. Yet on my most recent visit to that area of town, I was struck by the bold modern Israeli script that had been added to its outer facade, carrying its new Hebrew name and preceded by the traditional double kuf acronym, signifying "kehilo kedosha - holy community". What went on in my mind at that moment mirrors one of the themes of the mei meriva narrative, the account of that one moment, according to some, where Moshe and Aharon spoke disparagingly to the Jewish people and according to others, severely underestimated their core and their destiny.

Dramatizing what lies between the lines of the written word, the Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni) records that Moshe and Aharon's utter disappointment began early in the episode. Whereas we read of the enormous national loss of the prophetess Miriam, the Yalkut reminds us of the personal mourning of her great brothers. Miryam was the older sister who worried over Moshe to no end, and tried to protect him long before he was born and long after he became the forever unparalleled national teacher. Picture the thirsty and rancorous crowd approaching Moshe and Aharon sitting shiva. Aharon is convinced that they are comforters all coming to pay homage, and the discerning Moshe, evaluating the tempo and the disarray of the group, understands that this is an implacable and bitter lot.

At that moment, Moshe was far more disillusioned by his people's self centeredness than by any lack of faith that they ever expressed. Throughout any lapse of belief or trust, Moshe defended his people, but this lack of decency, of courtesy, of menstchlikeit, frustrated Moshe beyond repair. Where were the words of tribute for Miriam, the moments of pause, the inquiry to learn life lessons from her years, the gratitude to her profound vision at their depth of despair and the recollection of her well kept cymbals? Where was the concern for the wellbeing of Moshe and Aharon who unconditionally stood by them all, the soothing words and the memories that give meaning to mortal life?

This disappointment, suggests Rav Elyashiv shlit"a drawing on the Abarbanel, brought Moshe Rabeinu to censure the people he loved, respected and always defended even against condemnation from on High.

Yet Hashem holds Moshe responsible for losing the moment, for not teaching, for allowing his frustration to blind his otherwise profoundly penetrating understanding of our national and individual goodness and promise.

Throughout the parsha, observes the saintly Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop zt"l, Hashem portrays for us various prisms and perspectives that could change the outcome of similar situations. Rav Chalop draws our attention to a recurring verbal interplay throughout the account, referencing our people in two distinct fashions. At the beginning of the parsha (20:1,2) we are called an "eidah". However, we act as a "kehila" (20: 2, 4) and we see ourselves as such. Hahsem says (20:8) to Moshe to gather (hakhel) the eida and Moshe (20:10) responds and gathers (hakhel) the "kehila". Clearly there is instruction here.

Rav Charlop explains that "kehila" when standing alone, refers to a gathering of people; perhaps collected, perhaps selected, perhaps serving each other, perhaps offering a service to others. Not so an "eida." They have a mission. They must bear "eidus." Their ideas, speech and actions must at all times strive to bear profound testimony about Hashem and His sovereignty. How did the Jewish people falter and lose their compassion for the leaders they deeply loved and their belief after all that they had experienced? Their lapse may have been momentary, perhaps fleeting but nevertheless it stemmed from the core. They saw themselves, perhaps only briefly, as a "kehila" as a group brought together by shared circumstances rather than by a common challenge. Hashem stresses to Moshe that practically he may have to gather them as one puts together disparate parts of a complex puzzle, but he must remember at all times and through every interaction that they are no less than a weighty "eida."

Thus how does one prevent dissatisfaction from grabbing one's better judgment and expressing that which we may live to regret? Rav Charlop opines that if are we are ever aware that what may seem to be a simple and unimpressive collection holds at its root an "eida kedosha", that every instant with an "eida" provides a moment to shape and bring impact far beyond our reach, we will have learned much from the mei meriva.

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