This Shabbat’s D’var Torah was given by Rabbi Carl
In this week’s portion the situation gets nasty again. Miriam dies, and at the same time the people begin to complain again bitterly about the lack of water. They should be grieving for Miriam, but they are more concerned about themselves even though they ought to know by now that God will provide. Soon God does come to their aid by asking Moses to speak to a rock from which God tells Moses water will issue forth.
Moses, however, in front of all the people strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Nothing happens so he hits it again, and that does it for him and for Aaron who might have stopped him before the second hit. Moses loses his temper and his patience and calls the people “rebels.” As a result of this incident, Moses and Aaron will die without ever seeing the Promised Land.
Many commentators try to explain what seems to be an extreme and excessive punishment. Could not God have retired them both and made them “emeritus?” Rabbi Harold Kushner who penned the commentary below the line in the Etz Hayim Chumash looks at it differently. He says that, “it is not so much a punishment but a statement that their time of leadership is over.” They were “worn out” and there was now a two generation gap between them and their followers. It still seems, as the American Constitution says, a “cruel and unusual punishment.” I am afraid that we cannot figure it out in the confines of this D’var Torah or perhaps at all.
Perhaps we can try to understand in a general way, what leads people to act against their best interests. What is our tradition’s way of understanding bad behavior? This is a complex question with no simple answer, though what I am about to say suggests otherwise. Consider this answer as rabbinic tradition’s way of getting to the core of an answer. When God created humanity we were morally neutral; we were born with both a good inclination and an evil inclination (Yetzer HaTov and Yetzer HaRa), each competing with the other for control of our actions. At the end of the day, it is in our hands to choose which inclination will prevail. This is not always easy.
The big question is: when we are tempted to give into the evil inclination, how does we fight it so that we make a choice to be morally good. It is never easy, and it is a lifelong struggle within us as we are faced constantly with temptations to go wrong. I offer but one example. How does a person trying to give up smoking resist the temptation to return to this life-threatening habit. The Talmud would say, “first study, then recite the Shema, then contemplate the day of your death (Sotah 52b). The Talmud is saying that we must turn to a source of guidance larger than ourselves which helps us stop and think about the consequences and give us the strength to make the good choice. Some people would turn to a mantra, also from the Torah, like “love thy neighbor as thyself,” repeated over and over until the temptation passes. For the Jewish people the Torah and all of Jewish tradition which derives from it gives us the strength for the good inclination to win.
Hassidim have an interesting approach. They wear a “gartel” which is a silk sash around the waist to separate the physical part of our bodies from the mental part above the sash, or one might say to separate the thinking choice from the tempting choice. Some Hassidim wear the gartel only on Shabbat when they pray, others wear it all the time.
The bottom line here is that Moses and Aaron were completely overwhelmed by their own anger in their weakened state of exhaustion and “burn out.” We can endlessly debate God’s role in their fate, but we can learn from this story how difficult it can be for the good inclination to win out. Perhaps remembering this story will help us do so. Find your own way and do all that is humanly possible to follow the “good inclination.”