Parashat Chukat 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת חֻקַּת
Torah Portion: Numbers 19:1-22:1
A recent article in the New York Times about gun violence in America asks why 25 percent of gun violence is so highly concentrated in areas that contain only 1.5 percent of the population. “A small sliver of blocks – just 4 percent in Chicago, for example – can account for a majority of shootings in a city or a county,” the article states. Faced with the obvious correlation between gun violence and the abject poverty that plagues all those areas of high concentration, researchers are asking “why violence and poverty are linked. Is it something specific to poverty, such as insufficient housing or jobs? Is it the environment that poverty fosters, in which people are stressed and desperate — and more likely to act out?”
The research into why America’s poorest neighborhoods are also the least safe has led experts to a finding that may also help explain why, in this week’s Torah portion, Moses loses control of himself and commits the sin for which God prevents him and his brother from ever stepping foot in the Promised Land:
One theory… blames the breakdown of “collective efficacy.” That might sound academic, but the concept is straightforward: When society’s institutions have unraveled, people feel that they are on their own. They are then less likely to watch over one another or come together to address common interests.
By reducing social trust, concentrated poverty hurts communities’ ability to enforce norms against violent behavior. And when people are left unchecked and feel they have nothing to lose, they are more likely to take extreme measures, such as violence, to solve their problems.
In essence, in the absence of community structures that bring people together and foster a sense of mutual responsibility, people are more likely to feel detached from the people around them and, thus, will feel less restrained to harm them. When banks, grocery stores, retailers and others avoid doing business in certain areas of our cities, they promote an environment in which people feel abandoned. Of course, the violence in those communities is largely why those businesses stay away in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle. Clearly, social service agencies, the police, and faith communities have been unable to break that cycle, despite their best efforts.
What does this have to do with Moses striking a rock to bring forth water to a thirsty, angry mob? Moses was told by God to speak to the rock, but in his frustration with the Israelites, he calls them “rebels” and proceeds to hit the rock twice, never once speaking to the rock as God had commanded him to do. Where is the connection to gun violence?
Just possibly, at the time when tempers were short among the Israelites and their leaders, they were feeling abandoned. As a result, they acted out violently, without concern for the consequences. The consequence for Moses and Aaron – that they would die before reaching the Land of Israel – was enormous. It effectively put Moses and Aaron in the same predicament as all but two of the Hebrews – Joshua and Caleb – who had fled from Pharaoh in Egypt. They now were all doomed to wander for forty years in the wilderness with only the children who would be born in transit having the good fortune to settle in the land. The punishment for the community of Israel, you may recall, came about because ten of the twelve spies who scouted out Canaan came back to their community with the belief that not even God could help them defeat the “giants” who inhabited the land.
Why were the people, but especially Moses and Aaron, feeling abandoned? Just prior to this incident, Moses and Aaron’s sister Miriam died. It was Miriam who had set the infant Moses afloat in the Nile, where he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. But the Nile was not the only body of water that we associate with Miriam. Later generations of rabbis would attribute all the wells whose waters sustained Israel to exist for the merit of Miriam. As long as Miriam was with them, there would be water and the people would feel safe. The people feared that without Miriam they would also be without water. They felt abandoned by the one person who could ensure that the water they needed for life itself would always be there for them. It was this fear of abandonment, on top of the grief of having lost their sister, that caused Moses to violently strike the rock to bring forth water, thus diminishing the sanctity of God before all of Israel.
The analogy between Moses hitting the rock and the scourge of gun violence in America is far from perfect. The poverty and political, social and economic abandonment experienced by our poorest urban neighborhoods is historical and systemic. That’s far different from losing a loved one upon whom you relied for sustenance. The emotional and psychological impact of the former kind of abandonment is radically different from the latter. But I don’t think they are all together unrelated. In both cases, there is a deep sense of loss and detachment that leads people to act in ways that are not healthy for them or for society.
The lesson here is that we need each other. People need other people to care for them and help them feel safe. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. And they are our keepers. We must not become a society where it’s every person for him- or herself and people behave badly as a result. That’s what happens, though, when people sense that no one cares about them.
I hope our congregation is a place where no one feels abandoned. I hope ours is a community where we all assume responsibility for everyone else’s welfare. To the extent that this hope is unrealized, we have some work to do. But I know how we take care of each other and how we take care of the hungry, unhoused, and poor in our neighborhoods.
I don’t know what role we can play in fixing the problems of poverty and abandonment in our big cities, problems that contribute to gun violence. But I do know that we can take steps in our own lives to ensure that people in our own congregation and in our community know that they are loved. We need to be grateful that we don’t feel abandoned. And we need to work to keep it that way so that our neighborhoods stay safe and so we have a fighting chance of seeing our most precious dreams come to be.