Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Temple Israel, Tulsa, OK
July 17, 2015
Recently Nancy and I were talking with the Wards, our dear friends in West Hartford. We were commenting that our eldest, Aaron, had recently turned 45 years of age, and we wondered how it was possible for this to have happened – since Nancy is admitting now to being 55. The Wards reminded us that their first born – one of Aaron’s dearest childhood friends – was going to be 46. In fact, he turns 46 this coming Monday. It is a date that is easy for us to remember, because Chuck Ward was born on the day that Apollo 11 landed and the first man walked on the moon.
I am sure that like us, most of you who were living 46 years ago were glued to your television sets as you saw Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Like us, you were probably amazed that in your lifetime not only could it happen, but that you even had something like a television set to witness it live. And I am sure that we witnesses recall the memorable words Neil Armstrong spoke as he was the first human ever to set foot on the moon: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Have you ever stopped and thought about those words and what they mean in a larger and closer context than just an individual setting foot on the moon? Do you ever consider what it took to get there, to reach that faraway place?
Apollo 11 did not just happen overnight. Starting with President Kennedy’s clarion call in 1961 that we will send a man to the moon before the end of the decade, it took more than eight years for that dream to become reality. And while to some, especially looking back 46 years later, those eight years may seem like eight seconds, the truth is that a great deal of effort went into putting that first man on the moon. Literally thousands of mostly anonymous people worked on the Apollo Project. There were countless hours, days, months, and years of painstaking labor, of trial and error, of building and rebuilding, of tests and retests in order to get it right by those who worked for NASA or for the aerospace industry. There were other space missions which preceded Apollo 11, including the ill-fated Apollo 1 where three astronauts died in a cabin fire. But we don’t often think about those, do we? We don’t think of the many small steps that had to be taken by so many people in order for us to get where we wanted to go. No, we only seem to recall that one giant leap, the final step, reaching the ultimate goal.
We remember that it was Neil Armstrong who was the first man to set foot on the moon. By a quirk of history and fate, he was the one who had the mazel to be at the right place at the right time for this historic moment. All right trivia fans, who was the second man on the moon? Right, Buzz Aldrin. And who was the third man on that mission? Not so sure, huh? And if I were to ask you who was the flight director for that mission, how many of you would ever have known who that was?
So besides wishing our friend Chuck Ward a happy birthday next week, I bring this up because we conclude our study of the Book of Numbers this week, and I think there are a number of similarities between what happened to the Israelites in the desert and the Apollo 11 story. You see, the Torah – like the Apollo Space Program – is also about getting man – and I mean hu-man – to reach a particular destination. I believe the Torah actually gives our People two destinations. The first is a physical one, reaching the Land of Israel, the Promised Land. The second is a spiritual destination, having us become closer to God and a pattern people by observing God’s mitzvot.
Just as astronauts could not have reached the moon without all the effort and the man and woman power which I described earlier, so too the Israelites’ journey through the desert to reach their Promised Land would not have been possible without the contributions – not only of Moses and Aaron, the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of our story – but like the Apollo Program, through the tireless efforts, trials and errors, and even deaths of many people – all of which had to have occurred in order for the Israelites to reach their God-chosen destination.
Three months after the Israelites left Egypt, at Mount Sinai, they received a clarion call for the people to move forward to their next goal, conquering the Land of Canaan. But like President Kennedy’s call for man to land on the moon, this journey did not happen overnight. It took 40 years, four long decades, because of what is described in the Book of Numbers we are completing tonght and tomorrow morning.
Arnold Eisen, one of our Scholars-in-Residence and now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote: in the Book of Numbers “we have entered the world of politics: wars with hostile neighboring countries, civil insurrection, gossip, the succession of rulers and the details of civil administration.” In other words, the Book of Numbers is about the realities and practicalities of life. Not some pipe dream about man walking on the moon or immediately entering the Promised Land on a red carpet, but real world problems – both domestic and foreign – which stood in the way of immediately realizing this dream. And we see how the Torah addresses these real world, practical problems. They are described, I think, in order to teach us that only by addressing these small problems can the bigger problems get solved and the lofty goals be reached.
Among the many details which had to be dealt with before the Israelites could conquer Canaan was who would get which piece of land. The Israelites needed inheritance laws, and that ancient system of dividing up the land was meant to preserve each tribe’s holdings and, within each tribe, each family’s holdings so that there would not be an accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few. The law was very simple at that time. Property belonged to the man and, when he died, his property, including his share of the land, was inherited by his sons.
Daughters? Forget about it. Well at least until the daughters of Zelophehad showed up. You remember that Zelophehad was a member of the Tribe of Manasseh who died leaving behind five daughters and no sons. Under the biblical laws of inheritance, these women would be left with nothing. So what would happen to Zelophehad’s family holdings? These five sisters took the highly unusual step of appearing before Moses and the elders and the entire community to argue that the law was unjust and needed to be changed. (Numbers 27:1-8)
Now Moses knew the law better than anyone, right? He had received it directly from God, according to our tradition. But apparently the case Zelophehad’s daughters was presenting was new. Neither Moses nor maybe even God had ever envisioned the possibility that a man could die without leaving behind sons.
So Moses called up God and asked what to do. And God replied – in no uncertain or ambiguous terms – that the daughters of Zelophehad were right. From now on, the rule would be that if a man dies without leaving sons, his property would go to his daughters. Pretty progressive for 3½ millennia ago.
But not so fast. This Highest Court decision led to another problem. Members of the Tribe of Manasseh rightly complained that if these five women were to marry men from any of the other tribes, then their sons will inherit not only their own father’s land but Zelophehad’s land as well. This would lead to the unfair result of having people from other tribes owning land that belongs to the Tribe of Manasseh and, if this were to happen, the total amount of land belonging to Manasseh would be permanently reduced. (Numbers 36:1-12)
Good point. Moses thought about it and then issued another new rule, which we heard tonight. Brother-less daughters may inherit only if they marry members of their own tribe. If they marry members of a different tribe, then they may not inherit. Problem solved; we are ready to move on. And that is exactly how things happen. We encounter problems and we solve them because nothing is problem-free – not putting a person on the moon, not entering the Promised Land.
But before we move on, there is one difference between these two events which makes the Torah so special and such a lasting guide for human behavior. I asked you earlier if you remembered the names of the people involved with Apollo 11 and most likely your memory, like mine, started to fade after Neil Armstrong. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the Torah goes out of its way twice to tell us the names of the daughters of Zelophehad – Machlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noa. We tend to forget these names, but the Torah wants to remind us we should never forget the people – famous and not-so-famous – who enabled us to reach our destination, the people who helped shape our laws and society. So these five women are specifically mentioned twice in our Torah in order to impress upon us the important lesson that every person who is involved in making our society better or more just is deserving of recognition.
Sometimes we tend to forget that, which is why I remind you that the third member of the Apollo 11 crew was Michael Collins, and the Flight Director was Gene Kranz.
In the Book of Numbers we have read about the many problems which arose during the course of the Israelites wandering in the desert – grumbling about the lack of food and water, complaints about Moses’ leadership, the ill-fated incident of the spies, the rebellion of Korach, Miriam speaking out against Moses, Moses disobediently striking a rock, the deaths of an entire generation of Israelites plus thousands of others who died as a result of being punished by God for various transgressions.
Yet all of this was necessary in order to make us stronger – to teach us how to live as a community, to teach us how to deal with adversity, and to teach us how important it is to solve real-life, every-day problems if we want to achieve our goals. Only when we learned these lessons were we ready to set foot on the moon and reach our Promised Land.
Now let me bring it closer to home than the moon and the Land of Israel. Nancy and I have been working for more than a year-and-a-half on the centennial history of Temple Israel. We have hit the 75% mark – 1990. I have read every minute of Executive Committee and Board Meetings, all the Annual Meeting messages. Nancy has been reading the books of Congregational, Brotherhood and Sisterhood Presidents and Queen Esthers, and page after page of Temple Bulletins. Our congregation has been pretty good about recording and preserving the names of the many people who served as President of the congregation and its two major auxiliaries, the individuals who won the Isaiah Award and the Queen Esther Award. Thank God, their names have been preserved.
But as we study minutes and bulletins, we read about the literally hundreds and hundreds of members who served on committees; who staffed fundraisers; who taught Religious School, Hebrew School, and Nursery School; who performed in Temple shows; sang in the choirs; played in the Temple orchestra. We have read about so many of the problems, challenges, bumps-in-the-road, which had to be met and surmounted over these years – from leaks in the roof to a Memorial Day flood; from over-crowded classrooms to under-committed dues payers; from changing times to more changing times. Nothing is problem-free, including a synagogue. But because of the perseverance, patience, vision, courage, planning, hard, hard work and selfless efforts of so many, Temple Israel Congregation reached its 100th anniversary.
None of us were around 3500 years or so ago to witness the events described in the Book of Numbers. Many of us were alive and can recall the miraculous events of 46 years ago when man achieved the seemingly impossible and walked on the moon. But all of us are alive and well – thank God – to witness the 100th anniversary of our beloved congregation. What we can take away from these historical events is that there are many small steps that need to be taken by humans in order to make giant leaps.
We have learned that we cannot just snap our fingers and like magic walk on the moon, conquer Canaan, or create and nurture a healthy congregation. It took a long time to achieve all of these goals, with many steps and miss-steps along the way.
We still have more goals to achieve, many societal ills left to eradicate, more tikkun olam yet to accomplish. But we have learned from our Torah, from Apollo 11, and from our Temple centennial that if we are patient and persevering, if we allow ourselves to take those many small steps, and if we recognize the efforts and sacrifices of all those who helped us get there, then we, too, will be able to make what hopefully will be many more giant leaps for humanity. Kayn yi’he ratzon – May this be God’s will and ours. Amen
I am indebted to Rabbi Jack Riemer
whose insights inspired this message.