How important are symbols?
One of the enduring mysteries of this week’s parasha, Hukat, is the punishment Moses and Aaron receive for striking the rock. The rabbis are puzzled as to what exactly Moses’ sin was and further, why he was punished so severely!
One of the explanations put forward is that by hitting the rock and not speaking to it as instructed, Moses made it seem that he and not God, was bringing forth the water. The symbolism God wanted to create for the people was necessary, as this was a new generation of Israelites, who had not experienced the awesome wonders and miracles of the previous generation. Thus, the potency of the symbol was diminished, if not completely dissipated.
We have seen a powerful modern day example of this in the past few weeks.
In Israel, nine families held a joint ceremony to celebrate the B’nei Mitzvah of their children. Unfortunately, it was not the ceremony they had intended to hold. There was no Torah service as it was on a Sunday. The rabbi who they had worked with over the preceding months, Rabbi Mikie Goldstein, was not even invited. Why? Because he is not orthodox but Masorti and thus not recognised by the State of Israel to officiate. Even a deal worked out with the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, was reneged upon.
What was so special about this particular B’nei Mitzvah celebration you might ask? It is that these nine children all have Autism. According to a strict orthodox interpretation, they do not possess the capacity to comprehend the mitzvot and thus are not able to be counted in a minyan or to be called up to the Torah. The Masorti view differs and that is why over 4000 children in Israel to date have been afforded the opportunity to celebrate their Bnei Mitzvah in an active way by being called up to the Torah. In the service described above, they were mere spectators.
The symbolism of a B’nei Mitzvah is that of a child taking their first steps as a Jewish adult by announcing to the community that they are choosing to take their place in the community by actively taking part in it, either by reading from the Torah, or being called up to it. Sitting passively in the service that is celebrating their active engagement with our tradition makes a farce of that symbolism, to say nothing of the complete and total undermining of our movement by the State of Israel.
If you wish to read more about this unfortunate incident, please look here for a collection of articles.
Symbols are tremendously important. They allow us to express our deeply held values, or to illustrate those values to others. They can give expression to a feeling or convey the power of tradition. They can enhance an experience or capture a story. By altering or ignoring the power of those symbols, we risk severely undermining our identities.