People should think before they speak. This is common sense, you might say, but judging from the number of miscommunications and painful verbal exchanges that occur each day, this sense is not so common-even for Mosheh and Aharon in this week's parashah, Chukat.
Confronted by the people's bitter complaints about the lack of water, God counsels Mosheh and Aharon to speak to the rock so that it will bring forth water for the community. (Numbers 20:8) However, rather than use words, Mosheh takes his staff and hits the rock, not once but twice! The people now have water to drink, but their leaders are reprimanded for not obeying God exactly. We learn that because they did not publicly show faith in God's enabling them to provide water through the utterance of words, Mosheh and Aharon's punishment was severe: They were denied entry to the Promised Land.
Rambam (Maimonides) gives another reason for their punishment in his Introduction to the Mishnah: Mosheh and Aharon's display of anger deviated from the mean of patience. Such behavior in our leaders is considered a chilul HaShem, "desecration of God's Name." It was their frustration with themselves at not being able to constantly satisfy the needs of the people that provoked their words of biting, demeaning sarcasm: "Listen, you morim/rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" (Numbers 20:10)
Midrashic wordplay on morim, which also means "teachers" (Numbers Rabbah 19:9), indicates another significant deficiency on the leaders' part. It interprets Mosheh Rabbeinu and Aharon's reply as a rebuke to the people: "Listen, do you presume to be teachers, daring to teach us, who are your teachers?!" We would have expected empathy with the plight of even this stiff-necked people instead of such a harsh response.
Hence for us, such an attitude hardly qualifies as an optimal communication and education tool, a model of empowerment to which students are encouraged to aspire. Knowledge and wisdom, passion and humility are prerequisites for educational leadership. What kind of example is Mosheh Rabbeinu, the teacher of teachers, setting here?
Indeed, each person-not just teachers and leaders-can improve himself or herself, for a person is known according to kiso (his or her pocket)-how generous that individual is with material means; koso (his or her glass)-his or her drinking habits and, I would add, eating habits; and ka-aso (his or her anger)-how that person manages his or her tendencies toward anger (Babylonian Talmud, Eiruvin 65b).
Teaching and leadership are not only about the struggle to maintain faith and trust in God, colleagues, and community, nor only about getting the job done. They are also about the attitudes we manifest in every relationship. How do we use the sacred gift of speech to inspire such faith? We learn that when God breathed life into Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:7), each one became a nefesh chayah, a "living creature," which the Targum translates as a "speaking spirit."
Every moment, we are confronted with a fateful choice of words: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue." (Proverbs 18:21) Moreover, "We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments." (A. J. Heschel, Man's Search for God, pp. 25-26) How do we-leaders and citizens, mentors and learners, parents and children-use our words during moments of tension and frustration with ourselves or others? Do we use words that heal or harm?
God's words are known through the teaching and deeds of a community's leaders. When crises evoke expressions of bitterness and undignified disdain, which voice do people hear through us?
Thinking creatures become "speaking spirits" if we think before we speak. And each time we speak, we have an opportunity to renew the works of Creation, even as "God speaks and the world comes to be" (Baruch She-amar from the morning service liturgy).
Questions for Discussion
- Was too much expected of Mosheh and Aharon during that tense moment when the people thirsted for water?
- Have you ever been so frustrated with someone that you began to blurt out terrible, sarcastic things before you caught yourself?