Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Numbers 19:1 - 25:9
June 22, 2002 12 Tammuz 5762
Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, JTS rabbinic fellow
Some years ago, during a visit to Japan, I met with a sociology professor at Tokyo University. She mentioned that she had just returned from her first trip to Israel, and I asked what her impressions were. The professor paused for a moment and then said — "The Israelis, they argue a great deal."
Being argumentative is one of many stereotypes applied to Jews. Like other stereotypes, it fails to be instructive because it is not distinctive. Jews are not the only ones who argue. The members of the Japanese Diet do not treat each other more respectfully than the members of the Israeli Knesset treat each other. Social and business interactions in Japan are less vociferous than in Israel not because there are no arguments but because disagreement is often expressed by other means. Unlike other stereotypes applied to Jews, however, being argumentative is something many Jews embrace and even glory in. It is seen as a manifestation of alertness and cleverness. This mistaken view has caused us, as a people, much trouble over the years and today. The propensity to quarrel has deep roots in Jewish historical memory. Those memories go back to biblical times. Last week's parashah, Korah, records the rebellion of the character for whom the parashah is named. Korah quarrels with Moses and Aaron about the legitimacy of their authority over the Israelite nation. Moses, rather than retorting on a personal basis, refers the matter to God, who settles the argument by destroying the challengers.
This week's parashah contains one of several episodes, repeated throughout the Book of Numbers, in which the Israelites complain to Moses that they do not have enough to eat or drink. In this case, lack of water is the issue. Miriam has just died, and a midrash (BT Ta'anit 9a) links the two events, explaining that because of Miriam's merit, a miraculous traveling well had accompanied the Israelites in their wanderings in the desert, and dried up at her death. The Torah specifically uses the word quarrel (vayarev) (Numbers 20:3) to characterize the complaint about the water shortage. Yet, unlike previous instances when faced with a rebellion or disagreement, Moses mishandles this situation and suffers the consequence. God tells him to verbally instruct a rock to produce water. Instead, he speaks harshly to the people and strikes the rock. The rock produces water anyway, but God tells Moses that because he did not trust God, Moses will not lead his people into the promised land.
Biblical commentators have long been troubled by the severity of Moses's punishment. It seems unjust that this man, having borne so many burdens for so long, should be deprived of seeing the fruits of his labors because of what seems to be a minor technical violation. But most commentators take the view that this violation was more than just a technical violation. Moses, being a leader, was expected to uphold the highest of standards. By not following God's instructions precisely, his failure was more severe than that of an ordinary person and had to be punished more severely. Maimonides takes a somewhat different view: that Moses's sin was anger--the anger that he showed in his rebuke of the people and his striking of the rock (introduction to commentary on Pirkei Avot, Part 4.) In light of Maimonides' explanation, one can say further that Moses's anger validated and extended a quarrel. True, he settled the matter at hand by providing water. However, his harshness in producing this result added to the atmosphere of argument and contention. The Torah sums up this episode by leaving a sour taste: Water drunk by a thirsty person is sweet. Yet this water is called "the waters of quarreling" (mei merivah, Numbers 20:13).
There is something in the culture of Judaism, today and in times past, that sees quarrelsomeness as a virtue, perhaps as an antidote to passivity and the acceptance of bad conditions. Yet the opposite of strife is not inaction, but harmony. Harmony is not static; it leads to progress. Of all the words in our prayer book, some of the best-known and best-loved are those that come at the end of the Kaddish: "Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu v'al kol yisrael (He who ordains the order of the universe will bring peace to us and to all Israel)". We fool ourselves if we think that we can leave it to God to make peace on high and then for us. Saying oseh shalom should not be a way of confining the responsibility for peacemaking to God while we continue our quarrels. It should be an acceptance that the responsibility for creating harmony down here on earth lies with us.