Shabbat Hukkat: Where Anger Will Get You

This week we read beginning from Numbers 20 verse 7, in parashat Hukkat, as we continue in this second year of our Triennial Cycle to start not at the beginning of each parashah, but at the beginning of the middle third of it. We begin with a simple story, nothing out of the ordinary: the Israelites are complaining and G-d commands Moshe to act in response to the complaint. (One thing worth noting about our ancestors’ concept of G-d: complaints did not fall on deaf Divine ears.)

The people complain that there is no water. In the second verse of this year’s reading of Hukkat, G-d commands: Take your rod, assemble the congregation with Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock in front of their eyes; tell the rock to bring forth water, so that the people and their flocks may drink.” (Numbers 20.8)

If only it were that easy. Moshe assembles the people, but then, instead of speaking to the rock, he hits it, hard, twice. Water comes pouring out, and everyone slakes their thirst, flocks and herds too. That’s good, but the fact that Moshe hit the rock when he was supposed to merely speak to it is counted as a grave sin against G-d, so grave that it is for this disobedience that Moshe is informed that he will not enter the Promised Land.

Most commentaries on this reading spend a great deal of energy responding to the absolutely appropriate question we all have at this moment: for this Moshe is not allowed in? Some comments point to the higher standard a leader is held to; others suppose that this is emblematic of a larger leadership problem. My favorite suggestion is that G-d is desperately searching for any pretext at all to save Moshe, G-d’s friend, from the disappointment of what life will really be like in the Land when they reach it. (No reality is as good as the promise of it, after all.)

But there is another way to understand this reading and what was so terribly wrong with Moshe’s response, and that is the anger with which he speaks to the Israelites, and strikes the rock. Anger is one of the most destructive forces in our world; even when it is justifiable, one must be as careful with it as with fire, or any potentially destructive force. The sages of the Talmud rule that one may not discipline one’s child when one is angry, since anger causes irrational behavior and whatever we’re doing at that moment is not for the child’s good, but only to express the anger. (Talmud Mo’ed Katan 17a). Anger is defined as idolatry by Maimonides; he sees anger as the result of the disruption of our illusion of control.  (Maimonides Laws of Behavior 2:2). Only G-d has control, so what are you upset about?

One might forgive Moshe for forgetting that he was not G-d occasionally, since the Israelites sometimes treated him as if he really was G-d. Go back to their complaint just before creating the Golden Calf for an example. There, the people say make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32.1) Yet Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our Teacher”, was all too human. We have enough proof of it: from murdering an overseer through this week’s evidence, Moshe was not always entirely in control of his emotions. Even Moshe.

What happened on that day, with that rock, was all too sadly, humanly ordinary. Human beings lose our temper, and cause damage to animate and inanimate things around us. Worse is what happens when human beings with power over others become angry, because in our anger, those of us who control others’ lives – our children, our employees, and in some cases whole communities and nations – do terrible things which cannot be undone.

It is not only Moshe who couldn’t enter the Land he longed for because of his anger. We distance ourselves from that land – of peace, of serenity, of safety –  with each harsh, careless word and act. As it was said in a powerful phrase in an old siddur:  we continue to wander the wilderness for our sins, which are confessed in the daily papers. Anger, it is said in our tradition, is the most dangerous of emotions. While we cannot do without its energy, it is a power that must be wisely harnessed, and always feared.

From the perspective of Jewish mysticism, every act echoes in every other act. There is no such thing as looking on aghast and unconnected; all our acts, small and quotidian or nation-altering, echo throughout the world. Let that make us cautious; let that make us hopeful. And most of all, let that make us count to ten before we act, that it be not in anger but in kindness.

Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha: G-d is my GPS

In this third parashah of the Book BaMidbar, we are finally on the move; after over a year camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai, after receiving the Torah, constructing the Mishkan, organizing the priestly sacrificial system, and learning a lot of halakhah on how to maintain the appropriate atmosphere for the Mishkan in our midst, this week we read of the Israelites actually picking up and starting out on their way to the Land promised in our Covenant. BaMidbar means “in the wilderness”, and this book describes the preponderance of our ancestors’ adventures as they journey through it.

Imagine yourself in their place on the first morning that they began to move, with their families, their herds, and their flocks. If you have never explored the Sinai wilderness, here is an indication of what surrounds you: Sinai. You may have many questions about the trip (imagine the young children: “when will we get there?”), about oases, grazing land, and more, but first: in what direction are you to go? How do you stay oriented? How to know which caravan path will lead you the correct way?

You’d activate your GPS of course; no worries. The ancient Israelites did not have GPS, but they had something even more certain: the Presence of G-d, manifested as “a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night”.

Whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped  (Numbers 9.17)

That was it: when the cloud moved, follow it. When it rested, set up the tents and make camp. The next thirty-nine years are to pass in this way. There is evidence in the Tanakh (Hebrew Scriptures) that, throughout the ages of Israelite dwelling in the Land of Israel, our ancestors somehow longed for this earlier time, which they saw as, simple, pure, and ideal. The Prophet Jeremiah expressed the feeling with the marriage metaphor commonly used for our Covenant with G-d?

I remember for you the affection of your youth, the love of our engagement; how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown. (Jeremiah 2.2)

 All human beings, at some point in our lives, long for such certainty; we would all love to know exactly how to make our way through the world. It’s not wonder that our ancestors looked back at that time as an ideal – although in the weeks ahead we will read of many disruptions to the harmony that they preferred to remember.

The word bamidbar, “in the wilderness”, may be interpreted in a way that speaks directly to us, we who also wander, not perhaps geographically, but in other ways just as profound. With different vowels, the word may be understood as referring to speech – to words. And this is the wilderness in which we often find ourselves seeking clarity of direction: in a wilderness of words, of spoken, written, radioed, emailed, texted, printed….transmitted in so many ways, how are we to find our way through it all? When we are barraged by information about a candidate or a cause, for example, how do we discern which words most help us to find our way toward a decision regarding the person or the matter at hand? Which words are dead ends, and which lead toward promise?

The Israelites didn’t follow that pillar for thirty-nine years mindlessly; they encountered challenges which they attempted to learn how to answer using the guidance G-d offered through mitzvot such as those found in Mishpatim: keep your word, respect other’s wells, help your neighbor with her burden, and offer others the respect you expect for yourself.

We may not have a pillar that clearly guides us forward, but we still have access to the ethical GPS that has guided our people since those early wanderings. It can guide us just as clearly as we face our own challenges. That’s the gift offered through Torah study: over and over again, we bring our questions to Torah, and as we “turn it over and over again” we find that “….everything is in it”. Most wonderful of all, in this wandering we are not ever alone, for we’ve learned that the only way to follow that pillar is together, holding hands and stepping forth into the world.