D’var Torah: Parshat Chukkat

A d’var Torah I delivered at Young People’s Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Shabbat Shalom! Thank you for inviting me to join you today!

Throughout the service this morning – as is common throughout our liturgy – we beseeched G-d to remember the merits of our forefathers. As a child, when I recited such lines, Avraham Avinu was not so much whom I had in mind, but my great-grandfather, Bernhardt Hepps.

My father raised me on stories of his immigrant grandfather – how he founded Homestead’s synagogue and Jewish cemetery, built its shul, and continued to lead the community ’til the end of his life. And he told a whole other set of stories about Bernhardt – how he became so successful so quickly that he was able to bring over his seven brothers and sisters, send all his children (boys and girls) to college, and retire early. Growing up, I could more easily see Bernhardt, not the patriarchs, as a benchmark for the virtues the rabbis want us to emulate.

So, I implicitly accepted Bernhardt as the role model my father set him up to be, but at the same time I wondered about my father’s stories in the same way I wonder about the events narrated in Tanach. What in them is history? And what hyperbole? As I researched my family tree on an off over the years, neither confirming nor disproving Bernhardt’s alleged accomplishments, I eventually discovered something here in Pittsburgh that could reveal what Bernhardt really did: sixteen boxes of records donated to the Rauh Jewish Archives after his synagogue closed in 1993. That’s what brought me to Pittsburgh for the very first time five years ago, and that’s why I moved here last summer from New York City: to spend a year finding the truth about Bernhardt amongst the records of his community.

***

This week’s parsha, Chukkat, narrates the passing of a generation of leaders in Israel. We read about the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, and something of Moses’ end is prefigured, too. In Masechet Taanit (9a) the rabbis teach that from these שלשה פרנסים טובים, three great providers, the people of Israel received ג’ מתנות טובות, three great gifts, during the Exodus:

באר בזכות מרים עמוד ענן בזכות אהרן מן בזכות משה

The well was in the merit of Miriam, the clouds [of glory] in the merit of Aaron, and the manna in the merit of Moses.

It took all three to sustain the Israelites in the wilderness: Moses’ manna nourished them, Miriam’s well quenched their thirst, and Aaron’s clouds protected them from attack. In a way you might not expect, then, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron directly lead to the events of the last two-thirds of the parsha. The gemara goes on to explain:

מתה מרים נסתלק הבאר שנאמר ותמת שם מרים וכתיב בתריה ולא היה מים לעדה

Miriam died, and the well disappeared, as it is said, “And Miriam died there” (Numbers 20:1). And it is written immediately afterward, “And there was no water for the congregation” (Numbers 20:2).

מת אהרן נסתלקו ענני כבוד שנאמר וישמע הכנעני מלך ערד מה שמועה שמע שמע שמת אהרן ונסתלקו ענני כבוד וכסבור ניתנה לו רשות להלחם בישראל

Aaron died, and the clouds of glory disappeared, as it is said, “And the Canaanite, the King of Arad, heard” (Numbers 33:40). What did he hear? He heard that Aaron had died and the clouds of glory had disappeared, and he thought permission had been given him to wage war against Israel…

And thus the Israelites continued under the guidance of Moses alone. Given the primacy of his leadership even before his siblings died—let alone his unique role in Tanach—it’s easy to mistake the Exodus as a story of the Israelites under Moses’ leadership alone—not unlike how the stories I had absorbed as a child made Bernhardt seem the prime mover in everything related to his shul.

In my first months of research, I quickly saw that Bernhardt was one of many who organized the Jewish community in Homestead. I discovered that the first Jewish resident arrived in early 1881 just before the steel mill opened, paving the way for the other early arrivals, my great-grandfather joining them in the late 1880s. I read in the community’s history that they had sufficient numbers by fall 1893 to hold their first high holiday services in the local firehouse, but it took six more months to even contemplate organizing formally. It was Sam Markovitz who needed to say kaddish but couldn’t get a minyan together, Isidor Grossman who pointed out that that was a disgrace given their numbers, and Ralph Segelman, the leading Jewish merchant in town, who become their first president. My great-grandfather, the first vice president, joined these men as a signer of the synagogue’s state charter, and a couple years later he and Grossman made the deal for the cemetery land. Enter the many other men who were the synagogue’s officers in those challenging early years. Enter the school board. The annual ball committee. Eventually, the building committee, which Bernhardt chaired.

After Miriam died, the gemara teaches that the well חזרה בזכות שניהן, “resumed in the merit of the other two.” And after Aaron died, the well and the clouds חזרו שניהם בזכות משה, “resumed in the merit of Moses alone.” Markovitz, Grossman, Segelman, my great-grandfather, and the others were no Moseses; no doubt they felt that on this distant shore they were nothing compared to the sages they had known. But they were who was here, and the ancient responsibilities had no on else in whom to resume but themselves. Meanwhile, of course, all these men were working long hours to find their footing in this new country. Today we’d call them “lay leaders.” They’d just call themselves Jews.

In the past year I’ve met many people who grew up in Homestead, or whose parents grew up there (including some long-lost cousins of my own), and at first I was dismayed to hear that their families all had their own versions of my “Bernhardt stories,” except that in theirs it was their grandfathers who had played the singular role! About the midrash we’ve been discussing, the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, “A people have various needs, and different types of leaders arise to provide them.” I now know that the Bernhardt stories I was raised on are true—and so are these families’ stories as well. The real story is bigger than any one of them; it’s what they all accomplished collectively. And so the scope of my research has mushroomed, and I’ve extended my sojourn in the wilderness of Pittsburgh beyond the originally planned year.

***

When the protecting clouds disappeared after Aaron died, the Israelites’ journey turned dangerous. Amalek attacked them.   The Emorites laid in wait to ambush them. They asked Sihon, king of the Amorites, if they could pass through his land, and he sent forth his army in response. They merely approached the territory of Og, the king of Bashan, and out came his army, too. These events presage the thousands of years of encounters that followed between the Jewish people and the nations of the world.   While Jewish American history overall is certainly a significant exception, it’s tempting, all the same, to see at least a metaphor for their early experiences here.

The founders of Homestead’s Jewish community, immigrants from Hungary and Russia, saw themselves as an Exodus generation, too, naming their shul Rodef Shalom, which they translated as “Seeking Peace.” Their journey took them to what was then the world’s foremost steel mill town, whose rapidly growing population of immigrants laborers from the same countries they had left made it a promising place for merchants and artisans like themselves to make a living. We think of this generation of immigrants as particularly vulnerable, and we think of small towns like Homestead as hotbeds of racism in those days, so what would you think the experiences of the early arrivals were like?

The truth is, the picture I am assembling is a lot more nuanced than I expected. Jacob Rader Marcus, the father of American Jewish history, who spent his childhood in Homestead, claimed, “We didn’t experience any anti-Semitism; everybody was a foreigner.” It certainly wasn’t as rosy as all that, but at least some of Homestead’s population expressed respectful curiosity and even admiration for their new Hebrew neighbors. From the earliest years there was some social mixing – boys on baseball teams together, merchants donating prizes, and even the local hospital, business men’s association, and some fraternal societies had Jewish members from almost the start. There were Jews elected to the school board and the borough council by 1907, and even a Jewish police officer by 1903!

As astonishing as these facts might seem, they aren’t atypical for the small-town Jewish American experience, which proceeded quite differently from the large, urban enclaves whose history we’re more familiar with. And my great-grandfather and his friends recognized their unique fortune. When they dedicated their first synagogue in 1902, the shul’s president noted, “Looking about us we see the most prominent citizens of our town honoring us with their presence at our table, willing to break bread with us.” A few months later when they celebrated their first Chanukah in the new shul, his successor reflected, “My friends, not only in ancient times, but also recently, we have seen miracles performed…None of us came to this town the possessor to any extent of earthly wealth, and now…we all…are more or less in easy circumstances.”

1902 was, of course, the beginning of the story, not the end, but judging by the evidence I’ve found, it seems that Homestead was a place in which our forefathers were permitted not only to enter, but also to become part of the life of the town. Their exodus defied the precedent in the parsha.

***

When it is time for Aaron’s leadership to come to an end, his death is depicted in moving detail. Following G-d’s instructions, Moses escorts Aaron and his son to the top of Mt. Hor. There, he strips Aaron of his priestly vestments and dresses his son in them, allowing Aaron sees his son succeed him as High Priest before he dies. Rashi gives a touching commentary on G-d’s instructions to Moses:

קח את אהרן. בִּדְבָרִים שֶׁל נִחוּמִים — אֱמוֹר לוֹ, אַשְׁרֶיךָ שֶׁתִּרְאֶה כִתְרְךָ נָתוּן לְבִנְךָ, מַה שֶּׁאֵין אֲנִי זַכַּאִי לָכָךְ

Take Aaron: with words of solace; say to him, “You are fortunate that you can see your crown given over to your son, something I [Moses] do not merit.”

Of all the blessings for which my great-grandfather’s generation wished when they immigrated, this one – to see their crowns given over to their children – is the one that motivated them the most. Before this year I had thought my great-grandfather would have been heartbroken to know that organized Jewish life in Homestead didn’t even last a century, that the shul he built was sold to a church in 1993. He died in ’49, when services were standing-room only and every night of the week brought at least one event in the social hall. He would never have guessed that within two decades there would be no more Hebrew school because there were no more children. He could never have predicted how quickly the steel industry would contract, stripping Homestead of all the qualities that had given his generation such confidence that they had found a good place to raise a family. None of them would have wanted their descendants living in such circumstances. And yet, even decades after their congregation ceased to be, still there is a way their crowns can be passed on.

For – here we all are, just a few miles away – descendants of Homestead and of so many other communities that didn’t survive the population shifts of the Twentieth century – talking Torah together, as Jews always have, and contemplating the merits of our Biblical and contemporary forefathers. It has been a great many years since I pictured Avraham Avinu wearing Bernhardt’s handlebar mustache, but my childish instincts, I think, were right in thinking of both men as the avotaynu of tefilah. It takes all their stories to create a positive Jewish identity – both the ones we can trust will be read in synagogue each week, and our own family histories that we must do the work of perpetuating.

Shabbat Shalom!

 

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