My mother had two mantras for me, the rebellious child. She would say to me, on a daily basis: “Yes’em to death and do as you please” and “Don’t do as I do, do as I say.”
For me, this meant appeasing my wonderfully over-protective father who always worried and always said that a parent of a child up to age 18 knows best. These dicta were applied to such teenage infringements on my part as staying out later than curfew, driving too fast, taking public transportation late at night, cramming all night for a Latin test, refusing to buy lunch at school, and hanging out with friends who did not meet my parents’ approval. Small, very small to my present eyes, acts of rebellion, that sometimes ended up with consequences, but more often did not, except for the toll on my teenage conscience. The upside here is that a habit ingrained in me—of taking risks, of acting on what I considered fair and just at the time, and, truthfully, of doing what I perceived others, especially my peers, needed or wanted me to do — a kind of reverse education, perhaps, but one that has stayed with me throughout my life journey. That’s why I understand and forgive Moses for hitting instead of talking to the rock.
Let me explain vis a vis this week’s Torah reading: The reason for Moses’s exclusion from the Land of Israel is difficult to interpret and engenders discomfort among those charged with explaining God’s decision, and is insufficient, making many uncomfortable, creating the psychological need to suggest reason after reason in order to justify why Moses deserved the punishment meted out by God Godself.
Eighteenth century Italian commentator, Moshe Chaim Luzatto writes: “My entire life I have refrained from examining this topic (that is, this incident at the rock) too closely, because I was afraid of coming up with a new interpretation. . . .finding the chief of all prophets guilty of yet another sin.” The need to justify God is strong, and the clearest path is by increasing the guilt of Moshe Rabeinu—Moses, our teacher.
Indeed, Rabbi Josh Minkin offers: Holding up Moses as the model for behavior is what makes labeling him sinful so difficult. Luzatto suggests that “piling on” the guilt, while natural, serves no purpose; in fact, it is detrimental, making t’shuvah and forgiveness of oneself and others far more difficult. Once someone is labeled “sinful,” even if that someone is no less than Moses, we easily come up with justifications, making it harder to change our minds and remember that none of us is defined by what we have done wrong and each of us is capable of t’shuvah and thereby deserving of forgiveness.
This interpretation is by no means meant to foreshadow a High Holyday sermon — God forbid, we have 3 more months to go, although, in truth, every day could be t’shuvah day, as Jewish tradition reminds us that it is incumbent upon us to atone on the last day of our lives, literally, and who of us knows when that will be…
Aside from a problematic text in which the punishment does not jive with the transgression, what can this dramatic scene teach us today? Let’s transplant ourselves into the backdrop and work our way back to the center. If we need to conjure up an appropriate setting, why not be the jury reliving the scene of the so-called crime and tasked with the final judgment of guilt. We are in the book of Bamidbar, translated as “in the wilderness” and called Numbers in English because the beginning chapters are all about a census of the different tribes of Israelites, how they were organized in the camp, and their marching orders towards the Promised Land. Sounds orderly and mission-driven, but it was the wilderness: scarcity of food and water; fear of beasts, enemy tribes, and what lurks in strange terrain, not to mention the number of people present and assembled. According to the Torah text, 600,000 able-bodied men left Egypt, assuming a total population of 2.5 million humans. Whether or not historically accurate, we are talking about a horde of humanity. Without amplification, can you imagine Moses trying to get everyone’s attention and quash prevailing feelings of anxiety, fear, confusion, claustrophobia, and a general sense of powerlessness? We, too, are overwhelmed by numbers. As Jews, we often focus on the numbers tattooed on the arms of Jewish innocents during the Holocaust. Today, what comes to mind first is the number of mass shootings this calendar year alone.
Moses may have had a somewhat different list of numbers —those who perished in an untimely fashion by enemy desert tribes, hunger, thirst, and disease. He had a most challenging, if not impossible, job leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. Just before the drama of this Torah portion erupts, Miriam dies, Moses and Aaron have no time to even mourn her, and Aaron, silent, aged, and weak, follows Miriam a few verses after the episode and cannot be anymore a spokesperson for Moses as he had done in the court of Pharaoh. Moses becomes a verbal punching bag in the face of thirst and hunger among his beloved flock, his potential words assuredly unheard and unheeded.
So, Moses was on edge, to be sure. As virtual witnesses, we can’t know why Moses hit the rock instead of heeding God’s instructions to talk to it. Still, we can viscerally sense Moses’s frustration and negative energy. That he punched back all that negativity in the act of hitting is no surprise. God, why did you not give the guy a break? Some of us rant and rave when we need to vent, and some of us expend negative energy in physicality, hopefully without causing havoc or hurt. The Moses/rock dilemma is becoming more and more a drama for our time – an unexpected and violent act, albeit to a rock, and a punishment that, for all intensive purposes, deleted Moses from the rest of the story.
You know the classical rabbinic commentators stuck to the story line and tried so hard to justify God’s dictum. Rashi and Ibn Ezra, two of the most famous medieval sages both condemned Moses’ strike. The great Maimonides criticized Moses for having the hubris to take credit for the water miracle and for misleading the people into thinking God was angry at them. Chayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, who lived in the early 18th century imagines God saying to Moses (and we can imagine the tone of the voice here): “What’s wrong with you?” For those of you in the know about triangulating in the world of psychology, this is it. What if, instead of blame, God was to ask Moses: “What happened to you?”
Moses’ response is too long to even imagine tonight, but safe to say that Moses grew up in a palace as an outsider on the inside, was reared in isolation in a society that depended on the oppression of an entire people—his people, the Hebrews. It’s no wonder that Moses emerges as a young adult who lashes out, and we see echoes here at the end of his life. Perhaps, if we had time to listen to Moses’ answer to “What happened to you,” we would see his traumatic life and actions more fully and empathetically than the sages and even God.
As I begin to serve Temple B’nai Israel and all of you, please know that I will do my best to always ask “What happened to you?” as a step towards connecting with you, supporting you in your joys, in your needs for resilience and for healing from stresses and life’s burdens, and for joining together with you to bring about greater equity, access, dignity, and restorative and redemptive justice wherever we identify together the need. Keyn yihiye ratzon – may this be so. Shabbat shalom!