In this week’s Torah portion, God fulfills his promise to Moses, that the greatest leader of the Jewish people will not enter the promised land. What could Moses possibly have done, that he was forced to stand on the very border of Israel, still lively after 120 years, but unable to enter?
He struck a rock twice.
Going back, there seems to be a lot of context that the Lord should have considered. In Chapter 20 of the Book of Numbers, we find the Jewish people in the wilderness of Zin. Moses’s sister Miriam has just died and the well of water that followed the Jews through the wilderness, because of her merit, has stopped flowing. Moses, with the help of Adonai, has only just put down an insurrection and the Jewish people are still resistant. With the water gone, the people once again take up the cry of “why did we ever leave Egypt?” In fact they kvetch so much that Moses has to convince God not to smite them. When Moses asks Adonai for more water, he is told to speak to a certain rock.
Moses faces down a huge crowd of doubters and unbelievers, who are heckling him, as he goes to the stone. The commentators say that he was thrown off his game, upset, still mourning, perhaps even angry. When he went to the stone he disobeyed and struck it twice instead of speaking to it.
Really, what would you have done? I can imagine that if I found myself in a similar situation, I might act the same. I see myself with the big beard and staff: “FINE! You want water already!? Here, have some water!” For this completely understandable mistake, Moses and Aaron are doomed to die before seeing their life’s work fulfilled.
Why, and why do we see that punishment now?
To show us that though Moses could argue with Adonai, the prophet’s own actions were inescapable. After all, he was the one who brought down the commandment instructing all of Israel not to take revenge, or hold grudges.
Ben Azzai explains the commandment with a parable. “It is like someone who is cutting meat that he is holding in his hand: If the knife accidentally slips and he cuts his hand, would he revenge that hand by cutting the other one?”
Rashi also commented on the commandment “love your neighbor as yourself,” illustrating that it not only warns us to avoid acting punitive, but teaches us not to harbor even ill will towards others.
Though we are about to enter a holiday focused on our forgiveness of one another and enter a clean new year, Moses’s broken commandment forces us to remember that even if WE live to be 120, the consequences of our own actions may be inescapable.
There’s a lot in today’s world to fear. So much is out there that can stir up anger and distrust.
Yet, if we let that fear and anger move us to take vengeance against a people due to the actions of a few of their number, it would be, to paraphrase Ben Azzai, like cutting off our own hands.
Burning books, denying people a place to pray, living in fear and hatred of The Other. Right now it feels like this is the status quo. However, following these trends, as individuals or as a people, will only come back to haunt us. As we should know all too well, the arguments and hate that have turned against others, if given credence, could all too easily be turned back against ourselves.
This week’s Haftorah also warns us that how we act will return to face us. King David sings to Adonai “With the loyal you deal loyally / With the blameless hero, blamelessly / With the pure You act in purity / And with the perverse You are wily / To humble folk you give victory / And you look with scorn on the haughty.”
While crossing the desert the Jewish people gave in to fear, turned it into anger, and were forced to wander for 40 extra years. In a moment of anger and ill will, Moses doomed himself to standing at the border of his dream. Looking upon it, but being unable to enter it.
Soon it will be a new year, another kind of border. I can’t help but feel that we are once again standing on a mountain, overlooking a dream. Behind us is a desert, before us the land of milk and honey. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to die before I see a world where we live safe, free, in peace, and as equals with everyone around us.
I think to do so, we have to go further than treating others as we wish to be treated. We have to treat them better.
Rabbi Baruch Shalom Ashlag commented on the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself: “Even if it is clear to you that you should take revenge, the Torah tells you not to act according to your understanding, but according to the Torah.”
This will be my fourth year speaking to you during the high holidays. It’s also my last as an undergraduate. I like to think that one day I’ll leave the haven of George Mason University and find the world has changed. But I know better. The world doesn’t change unless we change it, with our beliefs, with our strength, and with our actions.
Ketiva ve-chatima tovah.
May you be written and sealed for a good year.