Have you ever been so angry and frustrated that you lashed out and struck an inanimate object? This experience is something that most of us can connect with, even though we may feel uncomfortable recalling a time when we did so. This week’s portion contains such a moment, where Moses, our most revered teacher, becomes exasperated and infuriated with the Israelite people. In the wilderness, God tells Moses to speak to a rock and that water will pour forth. Moses, in his utter frustration, calls out, “Listen you recalcitrants! Shall we go get water for you out of this rock?” and then strikes the rock rather than speaking to it, as God instructed.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev approaches this crucial and determining moment in the life of Moses in a way that can speak to each of us. Levi Yitzchak proposes that there are two kinds of teachers. Moses spent most of his life teaching as a gentle shepherd. This kind of teacher “reproves with pleasant words, telling each of us our elevated status; the source from which our soul was hewn…; how much pleasure the Blessed Creator derives…from the mitzvot performed by each of us; how much joy fills all the divine realms because we fulfill the command of the Blessed Creator. In this manner, he inclines our hearts to do the will of the Blessed Creator.” When Moses strikes the rock, he becomes a different kind of teacher, one who as Levi Yitzchak says, “admonish(es) people with harsh words, humiliating words, until they are compelled to do the will of the Creator”.
Moses begins by admonishing the people in a cruel way, with unkind and harsh language. We can imagine that his tone reflected the words he spoke. Levi Yitzchak puts forth the idea that this negative speech created an opening for Moses to continue in the same direction and behavior toward the rock itself, and led to Moses striking, rather than speaking to the rock.
This reflects a core teaching of our tradition - our words have power. God creates worlds just by speaking. When we speak with goodness, compassion, and kindness, we can curtail our impulse to do harm when confronted with situations that frustrate and anger us. We can take a moment to breathe, and take the course of being the kind of “teacher” (no matter what our profession is) that “admonishes…with goodwill (and) raises…souls higher and higher. Who always reminds us of our righteousness and greatness, and how powerful our influence is.”
As we head into Shabbat, let’s take this teaching to heart for ourselves. We can be the teacher who admonishes with harshness or with goodwill. By choosing to practice teaching with goodwill, and by uttering words that raise ourselves and those around us to higher places, may we come to know holiness.
Cantor Kerith Spencer-Shapiro