Words Are Sacred

Balak Hukkat By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jul 12, 2003 / 5763

Words are sacred. I remember the sanctity of words being inculcated in me as a high school student. My history teacher, Mr. Reilly, an admired, knowledgeable and articulate pedagogue (not to even mention his black belt in karate), instilled within us the fear of God with regard to proper attribution of words. His definition of plagiarism was ‘two or more words copied and unattributed.’ I remember being shocked by this Puritan definition, but it also instilled a respect for the written word. So valued are words that numerous violations, in addition to plagiarism, are attributed to their misuse. On occasions, words are distorted – in transmission, either knowingly or unknowingly; such distortion leads to the promulgation of lies and deception. And words are used to hurt – to curse, to destroy, and to instigate. Words are indeed sacred and powerful. This week’s parashah, Hukkat-Balak demonstrates the true power of words through the intriguing encounter among Moses, the people, God and the infamous rock.

Jacob Milgrom, in the JPS Bible Commentary on the Book of Numbers, refers to the episode of Moses’ striking the rock and subsequent punishment “as one of the Gordian knots of the Bible” (448). To summarize the episode, after Miriam’s death, the people are left not only in a state of mourning but also desperately thirsty. They aggressively plead their case before Moses and Aaron, seemingly once again imploring for a return to Egypt. Moses and Aaron enter the Tent of Meeting where God guides them to take the rod, to gather the community, and to order the rock to bring forth water. Moses takes the rod, assembles the people, and declares, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Moses then strikes the rock and water comes pouring forth. God then punishes Moses. The textual difficulty that sparks numerous commentaries throughout the ages is with regard to the precise nature of Moses’ sin. After striking the rock in Numbers 20, God declares to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” How did Moses not affirm God’s sanctity?

While there are many guesses as to the exact transgression of Moses, including one hypothesis that the actual sin was excised from the Torah, I am most convinced by the sensitive reading of medieval commentator Joseph ben Isaac of Orleans, France, the Bekhor Shor. This commentary hinges on Moses’ declaration to the rebels: “shall we get water for you out of this rock?” God’s disappointment with Moses and Aaron is that they did not affirm Divine sanctity among the people. The Bekhor Shor argues that rather than saying ‘notzi‘ (we will bring forth [water]) Moses should have said ‘yotzi‘ (He [God]will bring forth [water]). Through a seemingly minor slip, Moses changes the people’s perception and sets himself up as a god over the people. Moses’s language makes it seem that instead of attributing the miracle to God, he attributes the miracle to himself. Moses is guilty of the sin of distortion – that is to say, he, knowingly or unknowingly changes the reality through the mere slip of the tongue. And ultimately, this leads him to being barred from entering the Land of Israel.

What a profound lesson this is for us today. In a world in which language is abused by those in positions of power (as well as those in lay positions), the Torah teaches us a powerful lesson. We must be attentive and even vigilant to our use of words. Each of us must become a craftsman of the word – thinking deliberately about our word choices, understanding how others may perceive our words, and reflecting on the reality or perception created by those words. Carelessness is not merely an excuse; it may be a mistake with tragic ramifications that also prevent us from entering a land of milk and honey.

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.