“Use your words!” This is a refrain that I have heard parents recite over and over again to small children. As a new parent, I am prepared for my future of disciplinary tactics: “No, Jeremy, we do not bite.no, we do not hit.use your words.” Failure to use his words will surely result in a “time out” for my little son. This parenting technique comes to mind as I read this week’s Torah portion.
In parashat Hukkat, we are stunned by God’s dramatic punishment of Moses and Aaron. After years of faithful leadership, these brothers are condemned to die in the wilderness. After years of sacred service to God and the Israelite nation, Moses and Aaron will never enter the Promised Land. Commentators are perplexed by this extreme verdict merely because Moses strikes a rock. However, I believe that this story teaches one of the central lessons of the Torah. It is the same lesson that parents struggle to teach young children. We must learn to use the power of language.
God is very explicit in his instructions to Moses. After the Israelites complain about the draught, God commands Moses to speak to the rock. “Order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them.” (Numbers 20:8) Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses yells at the Israelites and strikes the rock twice. Maimonides, and later Hirsch, argues that Moses is punished for losing his temper (Etz Hayyim, p. 885). At a moment of great exasperation, Moses does not use his words.
Using words to create change is the very first teaching of the Torah. God speaks the world into being. “God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). Each morning we begin the Pesukei De-Zimra service with the prayer, Baruch Sh’Amar, “Blessed is the One who Spoke and the world was created.” God models the importance of demonstrating power through words. He does not smash, break or pound the world into existence. He simply and majestically speaks.
When Moses chooses physical violence over language, he forfeits his right to lead the Jewish people. The Israelites are journeying from a stage of spiritual infancy in the wilderness towards an era of independence and sovereignty in the land of Israel. It is a crucial time for discipline and training. Moses is the ultimate role model for this young nation. The repercussions of his shortcomings are just as important as his strengths and talents. Through this incident of the rock, God reminds the Israelites that language is the only sanctioned tool for molding a community. As Moses sits in his eternal “time out,” the Jewish people cross over the Jordan and leave their childhood behind. Our Heavenly Parent hopes that as we grow into maturity, we will remember the lessons of our youth and use our words wisely.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.