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?
This week's Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, is so filled with valuable lessons on life that I have decided to look at only one small part of the parashah and concentrate on the lesson it offers.
In Numbers 20:1, we are immediately and unsuspectingly told about the death of Miriam: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there." We hear of no period of mourning and no wailing and bemoaning (this point could in itself be the source of an entire commentary for women). Rather, the text goes on to state two things: first, that there was no longer water for the community and second, that the people assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. (Numbers 20:2)
In verse 26, we learn that God commands Moses to hand over Aaron's leadership to Aaron's son Eleazar: "Strip Aaron of his vestments and put them on his son Eleazar. There Aaron shall be gathered unto the dead." As soon as this change of leadership has taken place, Aaron dies, and the Israelites weep for thirty days.
After the deaths of Aaron and Miriam, the people begin to doubt Moses' leadership ability and express a lack of confidence in his being able to lead them on his own, without his siblings: "And the people spoke against God and against Moses, 'Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.'" (Numbers 21:5) After all, what does the Torah ascribe to Moses as his most noteworthy trait? His humility: "Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth." (Numbers 12:3) So how will he be able to lead the people on his own?
And what happened to the Israelites' confidence? What caused it to erode to the point of an insurrection? The people understood that Moses did not govern alone but with his sister and brother at his side. They recognized that Moses, Miriam, and Aaron each fulfilled a role in providing for the daily needs of the Israelites. Moses had the job of assuring Israel that they would always have food because the manna that appeared each night was his responsibility. Miriam provided water to the Israelites, and Aaron in his priestly role was the one in charge of the ever-present cloud that shielded the people from the sun as they journeyed. In reality, it was Moses who had the most powerful relationship with God, but God knew that in order to lead a people, authority had to be spread out and carefully delineated among the leaders. When one realizes that it was Miriam who was in charge of the water, then it is not surprising that Moses, distraught over his sister's untimely death, struck the rock as a result of the pain and anger that he felt toward God because of her death. Who among us has not struck out against God when we were in pain? And when Aaron, too, dies and the people are angered and complain bitterly to Moses, do we consider that moment just one more in a long line of "kvetching in the desert," or do we try to understand the fear they felt as a result of their having lost two leaders in the wilderness?
Losing leaders: Isn't that part of what has contributed to the escalating violence in the Middle East? The Middle East has recently lost two great leaders who were committed to nonviolence and peace. First, Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, and then King Hussein lost his battle with cancer.
In this week's parashah, we see the breakdown that can occur after two leaders have been lost. We see the precarious position in which nations are left when the next generation, the one that lacks firsthand knowledge of the past pains of its people, is asked to assume the reigns of leadership.
When we pray, intoning the names of our forebears, our prayer is not just a frivolous incantation of our matriarchs and patriarchs but a distinct formula, not only binding us but reminding us that our history does matter. We must learn from the past. If not, we are destined to repeat it.
In this week of Shabbat Chukat, a portion that begins with an obscure commandment and continues with significant deaths, I offer the following prayers:
In the name of Miriam: May the Middle East always be blessed with water, one of its most precious resources.
In the name of Aaron: May the Middle East find its way to peace.
In the name of Moses: May we show compassion to our leaders, whose burdens are sometimes too heavy to bear alone.
In the names of Yitzchak Rabin and King Hussein: I hope that never again will neighbors see one another as so vulnerable that they attack them. May we be blessed with brotherhood and peace in the Middle East. Amen.
Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936