Lighten up, Moses

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, Numbers 19:1 – 22:1.

Miriam dies, and after that there is no more water. Once again, the Israelites gather themselves against Moses and Aaron. The two ask God for help, and God tells Moses to take his staff and speak to a rock, which will then give water.

But Moses is in a fury at the people and tells them, “Listen up you rebels. Will I get you water from the face of the rock?”

And instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes it. Water does come out. But God rebukes Moses and Aaron and tells them that because Moses did not follow God’s instructions, they will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel.

The sages of the Talmud are troubled by this. They make a number of attempts to explain God’s reaction. Many center on Moses’ anger and his striking the rock, rather than speaking to it.

In recent days, I’ve come to find it plausible that Moses’ anger earned God’s rebuke. You don’t shout at a free people, you don’t threaten them by striking inanimate objects. That’s what bullies do.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks makes the astute observation, “There is one critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not…. You strike a slave, but speak to a free person.”

Sacks’ point is not only that Moses’ anger showed a lack of self-control, but that Moses’ actions, as leader, set a tone for Israelite society. The Talmud says, “Even a wise person, if they become angry, their wisdom leaves them… one who would have been destined for greatness forfeits it” (Pesachim 66b).

It’s not just that free people ought not be threatened or insulted, but that doing so creates a fearful and more slavish society, one less willing to think through for itself what is right or true, and more willing to do what it is told. One that reflects the actions of its leaders: insulting, threatening, or striking others, rather than resolving differences through speech. And that’s not the society God was trying to build.

The haftarah (Judges 11:1-33) also reflects this theme: The illegitimate son, Yiftach, deprived of what he considered his rightful inheritance, gathered a gang of like-minded angry young men to run wild and egg on. Later, when the community was scared of an outside force, they brought Yiftach in as a leader, and he made a reckless, horrific vow, which ended in murder.

Blind fury is tempting, particularly when there are real things to be outraged about. But it ends in disaster. And yet, how do we find a path away from it? A clue can be found in this passage in the Talmud:

“By three things is a person known: by his cup, by his pocket, and by his anger, and some say, by his laughter.”

While anger is a powerful force, so is laughter, both in the sense of exposing the ridiculous and taking joy in what  there is to be joyful about, and to turn one’s hand to changing things, rather than railing at other people.

Rabbi Alana Suskin is an educator, activist and widely published writer, and is also a senior managing editor of the progressive blog Jewschool.com, as well as director of strategic communication for Americans for Peace Now.

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