This week's Torah portion asks us to consider respect. Is it more respectful to allow someone to say something inaccurate, or is it more respectful to correct them?
Much of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses's recounting what happened to the Israelites and dispensing specific wisdom he hopes will benefit them as they prepare to enter the Promised Land without him. In this week' s portion, d'varim, Moses recalls when, decades earlier, scouts were sent to investigate the land on the other side of the Jordan. When they returned, the scouts explained that the land was beautiful, but they feared that the Israelites were not powerful enough to defeat the people living there. The Israelites responded with grief and despair, asking why God would bring them out of Egypt only to be defeated by others. In response, God declared,
"None of the people who have seen My Presence and the signs that I have performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, and who have tried Me these many times and have disobeyed Me, shall see the land that I promised on oath to their ancestors; none of those who spurn Me shall see it." (Numbers 14:22-23)
When Moses recounts the story in this week's portion, he repeats the punishment that was set forth because of the people's lack of faith when the scouts reported what they saw.
"When the Eternal heard your loud complaint, God was angry. God vowed: Not one of these people, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your ancestors." (Deuteronomy 1:34-35)
But Moses adds,
"Because of you, the Eternal was incensed with me, too, and God said: You shall not enter it either." (Deuteronomy 1:37)
According to the Book of Numbers, the latter is not true. Indeed, Moses is not allowed into the Promised Land. Yet, the reason given to us in Numbers is quite different. There, the people found themselves without water and God instructed Moses and Aaron to speak to a rock to bring forth water. Instead of speaking to the rock, however, Moses struck it. In response, God says,
"Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore, you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them." (Numbers 20:12)
Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land because of what he did, not because of God's anger with the people.
What Moses said was problematic, however, the peopledon't correct him. They don't stop him and defend their parents and grandparents. Rather, they let him continue uninterrupted. Why? Perhaps they thought they were being respectful. After all, Moses is both their long-time leader and their elder at the age of 120 years old. Perhaps they thought it would be disrespectful to correct what he said.
Yet, in not correcting him, they were being disrespectful. He blamed others for something he brought on himself . That is certainly not respectful to their forebears, even if it shows some deference to Moses. It was also disrespectful to Moses, because by allowing him to retell the story incorrectly, they dismiss him and what he has to say and teach. They might have thought they were sheltering him because he is old, but by not correcting him, they demonstrated their belief that what he said, ultimately, didn't matter.
That is a message that we send to people when we don't correct them, or don't say something when they say something that we find problematic. We show respect for people when we expect them to live up to their highest selves, not when we underestimate their ability to be thoughtful and reflective. How often do we let inaccurate or inappropriate things go and tell ourselves it is out of respect? Are we afraid of an uncomfortable moment? Yet, in not saying something, the person who is speaking loses an opportunity to grow, and wefail to protect ourselves and others from difficult situations in the future.
Would Moses have been able to accept correction or criticism? Moses dealt with criticism and complaint from the Israelites his entire life, and though he was often exasperated by the burden of leadership, he was also humble. He might have been able to see that he was putting his pride before the truth. He might have been able to reflect on his latent anger and frustration over how his life was so greatly affected by the choices of the Israelites. If he could see all those things, he might have been able to figure out how to be at peace with some of them. In not correcting Moses, the Israelites didn't help him at all.
The next time someone says something inaccurate or problematic, remember that offering a gentle correction or honest feedback means that you see in the other a potential to learn and to grow in positive ways. And when we are the ones receiving the feedback, let us see it as an opportunity to work to be our highest selves.