Imagine for a moment that you walk into a public library to pick up some children’s books for some tiny humans in your life. You head towards the children’s section, and you see that the front desk is empty – the librarian who usually sits there is not there. Perhaps they are in the bathroom, perhaps they have a day off, but they are not there. You were hoping for some assistance finding books on particular topics to read with your littles, so you approach the desk in the reference center and say to the librarian there, “Hi, I’m looking for some children’s books. Could you help me find what I’m looking for?”
And the librarian responds, “Sorry, no, children’s books aren’t ‘my thing.’”
“Not your thing? Well, I know you work in the reference center, but the children’s section is unstaffed and I need some help. Couldn’t you just help me for a moment?”
“No, I don’t really like children. They make me uncomfortable. I’d rather not go into the children’s section.”
If I had such an interaction, I’d probably file a complaint. Children and children’s books not being “your thing” seems like it could be a good reason not to work in a library. Especially if you don’t offer alternative solutions to the request, such as bringing another librarian over to help instead.
I can certainly imagine situations where responding with “no” is perfectly reasonable and valid. “No, I’m sorry I can’t help you move into a new house, I’ve got a bad back. But I’ll be happy to write down what’s in each box or even just hang around so you have company while you pack.” “No, I’m sorry I can’t save you from drowning, I can’t swim. But I will get help and call 911.” “No, I’m sorry I can’t remove your spleen, I’m not a surgeon. But I will get you a recommendation.”
Something not being your “thing” is a little more of a gray area. And a librarian may be a stranger, but what if the request is being made by your friend or fellow community member?
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, we start with Moses and both his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, but by the end of the parashah, Aaron and Miriam have both died and moved on from this world. With them, their “things” also depart. Miriam’s “thing” was the magical traveling well of fresh water, and Aaron’s “thing” was the protective Clouds of Glory.
Miriam died first, and upon her death, the well dried up and the text says that the community had no water. This led to one of the more well known moments in the Torah when Moses struck a rock to bring forth water, instead of asking it nicely like God had instructed, for which Moses was punished by not being allowed to enter the Holy Land with the people.
But when Aaron died, the text does not mention the Clouds of Glory that protected the entire community.
וַיִּרְאוּ כׇּל־הָעֵדָה כִּי גָוַע אַהֲרֹן וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת־אַהֲרֹן שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל׃
The entire community saw that Aaron had expired, and the whole House of Israel cried over Aaron for thirty days. (Num. 20:29)
Immediately, the Torah continues:
וַיִּשְׁמַע הַכְּנַעֲנִי מֶלֶךְ־עֲרָד יֹשֵׁב הַנֶּגֶב כִּי בָּא יִשְׂרָאֵל דֶּרֶךְ הָאֲתָרִים וַיִּלָּחֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּשְׁבְּ מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁבִי׃
The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, heard that the people Israel had arrived on the caravan route, and he waged war against the people Israel and he took captives from them. (Num. 21:1)
What did this king hear? The Talmud (Taanit 9a) says that he heard Aaron had died, and the Clouds of Glory had been removed, and he thought he now had the authority to wage war against the people of Israel. Rabbi Abahu adds, “Don’t read the previous verse as ‘the community SAW [vayir’u] THAT Aaron had expired.’ Read it as ‘the community WAS SEEN [vayira’u] BECAUSE Aaron had expired.’” The Clouds of Glory disappeared, and without the protective cover, the community was vulnerable to attack.
So we have the connection between Aaron and the Clouds of Glory, and it makes sense for this to be Aaron’s “thing.” Aaron is the Great Peacemaker. In Pirkei Avot (1:13), Rabbi Hillel tells us to “be like a disciple of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah.” In Avot d’Rabi Natan (12:3-4), learn that Aaron served this role of bringing people back together, of helping to keep an entire community united, by exuding this peace-loving characteristic. When people would fight, just by sitting with Aaron their rage would subside, so they could reconcile. So many married couples felt the unifying power of Aaron that he had thousands of babies named after him! When Moses was meeting God at the top of Mount Sinai for over a month, and the people began to panic and feel abandoned, Aaron kept the people calm until Moses returned by having them construct the Golden Calf. Aaron was a big picture leader.
Moses, on the other hand, was a different kind of leader and resource for the people. He preferred an individualized approach, like he used to do with his sheep when he was a shepherd in Midian. He knew that younger sheep needed a different kind of care and attention from the adults in the flock, and he gave the people of Israel similarly personalized care. He learned back in Exodus from his father-in-law how to delegate, and he set up a massive system of leaders to help most of the people with their problems, and only the biggest and most complex ones would even reach Moses, who could consult with God. Then he could devote lots of time and attention to the impacted parties, and had the capacity to create a specific and individualized plan to help them.
When Aaron died, and the Clouds of Glory disappeared, Moses could have said, “Oh well, big picture isn’t really my ‘thing,’ so I guess people will have to deal.” But instead, he recognized that even though he’s not a Clouds of Glory kind of guy, the people need the Clouds of Glory right now, and he can respond to this need. And the Talmud tells us that the Clouds of Glory “returned in the merit of Moses.” It was more than finding someone else to replace Aaron, a different resource to take care of it – Moses actually stepped forward and allowed himself to be transformed in the moment. A pivot, if you will, which we all know so well from when we all had to pivot and transform our services when the pandemic first hit. It may be uncomfortable or unnatural, we might want to resist, but it is such a beautiful opportunity for community care, and we all have the chance to answer the calls and the needs of our community. I will be learning a lot of new music that is important to the WJC – I might prefer a different melody for this or that prayer, but why not let the new tunes transform me?
You will have these opportunities too! What if we need some flowers planted and Stacy Brooks is out of town? Maybe gardening isn’t your “thing,” but your assistance would make the grounds literally more beautiful and colorful for everyone. What if the host scheduled for Shabbat services calls out sick? You’ve never had this role before because it’s not your “thing,” but your smiling face will make such a positive impact on everyone you greet at the door. Who knows – you may be transformed by the moment and find that you love it.
This is a time for us to try things on, to support the community, to fill roles that need filling, even if it’s never been our “thing” before. And when we allow ourselves to be transformed on an individual level by our community, we in turn help the entire community transform into something even better, one moment at a time.
May we find numerous opportunities to respond to community needs in ways we never have before, and may it make the community stronger, more caring, and more peace-loving with every passing moment.