A few weeks ago, my wife Jody and I were blessed to be joined by some of our family and friends to celebrate the graduation of our son, Gabe, from his kindergarten class at JDS, the Jewish Day School. We watched with pride as he sang his Hebrew and English songs, and he and his teachers reflected upon how much he and his classmates had learned and done over the course of the year. It was amazing and emotional for me to think about how quickly six years have already passed, and to look forward to the further growth that, God willing, lies ahead. Kein ahora, we are blessed with a bright, happy, and healthy little boy.
As we were wrapping up at graduation, I couldn’t help but think of my dear friends, classmates, and colleagues Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer of Chicago. A day or two earlier I had received a heart-wrenching text message from Phyllis. They were in the hospital with their six-year-old, Sammy. He had just been diagnosed with leukemia.
Sammy and Gabe are just a few weeks different in age. Though geography dictates that they don’t see one another nearly as often as we might like, they enjoy playing together, and they seem pretty indistinguishable from one another in terms of interests, temperament, and the like. Yet through a fluke in cellular structure, Sammy’s whole world (and that of his family) has suddenly changed,
This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach on a Friday night since I learned about Sammy’s illness. He and his family have been on my mind a lot. But the purpose of this sermon is not to bring you down. Because Sammy is a fighter, as are his parents, and though this is certainly a rough period for them, they are determined to face it with courage, hope, and strength. Sammy has been dubbed “Superman Sam” and has collected messages and photos of support from all over the country and across the globe. Hundreds, if not thousands, or even millions of people of all faiths all over the country are praying for him; you may have noticed that I mentioned his name during our Mi Shebeirach prayers a few moments ago.
Sammy’s story resonates with me not just because of the love I have for him and his family. It also speaks to me because it helps me make some sense of this week’s Torah portion.
This week’s portion is known as Chukat. It derives its name from the Hebrew word “chok,” meaning “law.” The rabbis of old, in discussing the various mitzvot of the Torah, actually drew a distinction between two types: chukim and mishpatim. Both terms refer to the rules or laws of scripture. But mishpatim have explanations attached to them: observe Shabbat in order to appreciate that God rested during the work of creation; treat the stranger kindly because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Chukim, on the other hand, have no rationale given. We’re supposed to observe them just because God said so. Many of them, through a 21st century lens, like the red heifer ritual we read about in this week’s parasha, make absolutely no sense whatsoever.
No sense whatsoever. That certainly applies to Sammy. Why is one six year old in a hospital room losing his hair, while others are out playing, going to camp, enjoying the activities of summer? No. Sense. Whatsoever.
But here’s the thing you need to know about the Sommer family. They’re not taking this lying down. Sure, they’re sad, scared, and angry. Yes, they have lost all sense of “normalcy” and have had their entire routine disrupted. They have probably had more than their fair share of tantrums and tears. But they are doing their darnedest to handle this extremely difficult period with poise, grace, hope, and even occasional humor.
That’s a lesson of Chukat also; one that, God-willing, most of us will never be directly tested by: when you are in a lousy situation, when the pressures of life are building around you, try not to make snap decisions; try not to respond in the heat of the moment. I refer here to Moses, who, faced with rebellious cries from thirsty Israelites finds himself unable to function according to his usual paradigm. Instead of talking to a rock to gently coax water from it, he strikes it in anger. It has the desired effect, but it has its consequences as well.
Remember I told you that Sam has been nicknamed “Superman Sam”? Well, certainly he does his best to exemplify that character. But, at the end of the day, Superman is a fictional creation. No real human being can be totally impervious to pain, emotion, and other human frailties. Not even Moses.
The beauty of our Torah is that it presents us with characters who, at the end of the day, are just like you and me. They have moments of triumph and moments of upset. They have moments when they do big and grandiose things, and moments when they really foul things up.
Each of the fifty-four weekly Torah portions is paired with a Haftarah, a passage from prophetic literature that has some thematic tie to the message of the Torah text. Some of the connections often seem a bit tenuous. This week, we read a story of a judge named Yiftach (or Jephthah, as many English bibles render his name). Yiftach is lesser known than judges such as Samson, Deborah, or Gideon, but his story follows a similar arc: he rises from humble roots just as the Israelites are most in need of a hero, and leads his people to an unexpected victory over their enemies. He is able to rise above his hurt from having been despised and rejected in his youth to serve as a leader when the need arises. In this way, his story mirrors that of Moses, as both are able to put the needs of the community above the needs of self.
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the (incidentally) Jewish creators of Superman may have drawn from this common biblical trope when they created their character. They made his alter-ego, the mild-mannered Clark Kent, the epitome of humility, and reminded us that even heroes have weaknesses (in Superman’s case, of course, it was kryptonite). At the same time, the character inspires us to continually strive to soar and reach new heights. This is why Superman is a fitting moniker for my friend Sammy. Because I know that he will reach new heights. I know that he has great things ahead of him.
If you want to be hero, by the way, to Sammy and to others who are facing leukemia and other illnesses, you can donate blood, or sign up to be on the bone marrow registry. Both of these are small ways that you can help superheroes like Sammy continue the fight.
Back to our Torah portion… after the incident with the rock and the water, a plague briefly descends upon the Israelite people. Fiery serpents appear and inflict many Israelites with dangerous bites. Moses orders the construction of a copper serpent, and miraculously, when people look upon it, they are healed.
This strange incident is actually very important for the Israelites, for us, and for individuals like Sammy. It’s easy to focus on the present, and the things are troubling or frightening us. That’s not to discount the very real threats that are sometimes presented: fiery serpents that bite at our heels and cancerous cells that invade our bloodstream are nothing to sneeze at! But if we look forward, we can visualize a solution; we can visualize healing. The rabbis teach that in looking upon the copper serpent, the Israelites had to turn their eyes heavenward, reminding them to stop kvetching and return to trust in God. When we look upward and forward, we can see a brighter future.
This is what I see for Sammy. I visualize healing. I visualize a happy and healthy young man playing once again with his healthy siblings and my healthy children and all his other friends—and please, God, may they all be and remain healthy. I picture celebrating his Bar Mitzvah, his graduation, and other significant milestones. And if you are holding someone in your heart tonight who is facing illness or hardship, let’s add them to this picture too. Because, with God’s will, we can all be supermen and superwomen, living in a world of health, happiness, and peace.
Ken Y’hi Ratzon, may this be God’s will.