Grimace and Bear It

“Boooo!!!” The jeers could be heard throughout the crowd. It was the lowest point in the season, and there was no relief in site. Their last win seemed like ages ago, and no one was interested in talking about miracles from the past.

I’m speaking, of course, about this week’s Torah portion, Chukat. At this point in the Book of Numbers, Moses has had enough of his recalcitrant flock. Earlier in the portion, he lost his temper, and the privilege of entering the Promised Land along with it. Now, the Israelites are miserable (again!) and are complaining (again!) to Moses, this time about the food. Mannah? Feh! In response, God sends a plague of poisonous serpents, whose fiery bite fells many of the rabble rousers. In response, the Israelites beg Moses for a cure. God and Moses’ response is unexpected, to say the least: Moses is instructed to construct a copper serpent and mount it on a pole, and as he holds it high above the Israelite’s heads, the plague is cured for all who gaze upon it. If not a direct inspiration for the Greek and modern symbols of healing (the Rod of Asclepius or the caduceus, take your pick), the similarity is certainly striking – look at a snake, and you are healed! It sounds less like a Jewish approach to medicine and more like…snake oil? Later Jewish leaders saw the danger in such a powerful talisman – by the time of King Hezekiah, Moses’ original copper serpent had become an object of idolatrous worship, which the righteous King needed to destroy alongside other pagan idols.

But then again, there’s something to be said for a shiny new symbol of hope and healing in the midst of a people’s darkest moments, isn’t there? Mets fans would certainly agree. On June 12th, the Mets were an abominable 11 games under .500, and Mets fans were facing another interminable summer of suffering and humiliation. When who should arise as a beacon of hope, but a creature whose very presence lifted the spirits of fans and players alike. A purple mass of joy who healed all who gazed upon him! From the moment Grimace threw out the first pitch, the team’s fortunes were seemingly reversed overnight. A winning streak followed, and as lumbering bats awoke, the team suddenly had the best offense in baseball. As of this writing the Mets are within striking distance of a playoff spot (?!), seemingly in large part due to McDonald’s second-string mascot, and his goofy aura of kindness and perseverance. The Grimsanity has even taken hold of some of our own members! The Kerpens and Simons (of Purim shpiel fame!) were featured in an article and video in Newsday about the “Grimirati,” while our own Damon Gersh’s daughter, decked out in an inflatable Grimace costume, even caught the eye (and ire!) of longtime Mets announcer Keith Hernandez.

Is there a reason that we Reconstructionists might gravitate so strongly to a healing symbol in our midst? We all know that Mordechai Kaplan famously proclaimed that Jews simultaneously live in multiple civilizations. But it’s not just the American/Israeli/Canadian civilizations that we inhabit alongside our Jewish communal world. It is also the realm of hope that we straddle alongside the darker worlds we are often forced to inhabit. We understand what it means, in the midst of terrible times, to look up, and out, beyond ourselves, and find strength in our community, our solidarity, and yes, our sense of humor.

I hope we can all find our way through the wilderness together, and find healing and hope in whatever forms we are lucky enough to encounter along the journey.

Cantor Eric