When the humble Moses struck the rock in frustration

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

In this week’s Torah portion, Hukkat, the Israelites are encamped at Kadesh, where the death of Miriam has just occurred.  Though generally an oasis, at this time there is no water for the people to drink.  They come to Moses and Aaron, not to console them on the death of their beloved sister, but to complain and to romanticize their life in Egypt through a revisionist view of their history there.  

Moses has faced rebellions by the riffraff, by members of his own family, by those who would assume leadership in his stead and by the entire people.  From his point of view, he is in a constant dilemma.  No matter what he does for the people, come the next day, and they inquire, “What have you done for me lately?”  No one enjoys fielding constant complaints with little or no positive feedback, and the growing frustration he is experiencing has to be wearing him down.

Yet, the people have a real complaint.  A human being cannot long live without water.  It is vital to one’s survival, more so than even food.  Without water to drink, the body has no means of balancing electrolytes or of ridding itself of any toxins.  One by one, each of its systems begins to shut down until all systems are shut down, and death inevitably results.  Their complaint about the lack of water is a legitimate one.

How does Moses respond to the Israelites?  He responds out of frustration and anger.  He calls the people “rebels” and sarcastically asks if they think that he can produce water from the rocks.  Apparently, he forgot that he had already done that!  His anger, his calling them “rebels” and his sarcasm no doubt came as a surprise to the Israelites and maybe even to himself, as their relationship generally was one of love.  

In this incident they don’t say anything to Moses that they haven’t already said.  This is not the first time that they brought up their revised recollections of Egypt and of the “easy” life that they enjoyed while under the whips of the taskmasters.  It is not the first time that they complained about the lack of water.  Moses’ reaction seems over the top, as they say, too strong for the Israelites’ offense.  After all, they were thirsty, and there appeared to be no water to be found anywhere.  

And so it is that people often hurt the ones they love.  How many of us as parents overreacted to a small misbehavior on the part of one or more of our children, blowing the incident way out of proportion?  How many of us have behaved similarly with a spouse?  a friend?  an employee?  a co-worker?  In the heat of the moment, anyone can be caught by surprise by another’s actions or words and overreact to them utilizing anger, sarcasm and even physical violence.  And more often than not, this is done to the people we most love.

There are some who are frustrated at their place of employment.  They may feel powerless to confront the source of that frustration, so the anger builds and builds until it feels like a pressure cooker inside.  Any little thing is likely to blow the lid of the pot right off.  They don’t feel as powerless, however, with those whom they love, with their children, their spouses, their siblings, their parents.  So when confronted with a small thing, because of all of the other pressures that have been building, they lash out, hurting the ones they love and in the process themselves as well.

As the Midrash Ruth Rabbah begins, we learn a lesson about proportional responses.  It quotes the very first verse of Ruth where it says, “It came to pass in the days when the judges judged.”  However, the rabbis read it as, “It came to pass in the days when the judges were judged.”  It goes on to lament the fact that our reality is that judges are often judged, and even more, that judges sometimes need to be judged.  As an example it uses a folk saying to say that there are times when small matters are brought before the court, but they are adjudicated as if they are huge. This leads people to judge the judges and to the need for judges to be judged.

So it is with us. The rabbi who married us gave us a piece of advice which I have never forgotten. He told us to make the big things big and to make the small things small.  He knew that in order for any relationship to succeed, but especially one in which the people love one another, it is important to retain a sense of perspective and of proportion. Important matters need to be given the weight that they deserve; so, too, do the small matters.  Making a mountain out of a mole hill and minimizing really big things does no good for anyone and can easily lead to hurting the very ones whom we love most.

Moses’ anger got the best of him.  For 40 years he had let it build and build.  He had a mental file card of every little thing that the people did, and at this moment in their travels, it all built up until he could control himself no longer.  Moses, after all, was a human being, as are we.  Instead of acknowledging the people’s thirst and indicating to them that he would do all that he could to see to it that they did not die in the wilderness so close to their goal, as he done in times previous, he lashed out at them, giving vent to his frustrations and projecting his feelings of inadequacy and helplessness upon them.  Instead of taking a breath, counting to 10, or doing something to give him time to assess the situation more rationally, he overreacted to their complaint.

Moses’ example here provides us with an insight into a reason why we sometimes hurt those whom we love most. And in gaining that insight, we can then prevent ourselves from succumbing to the same temptation.  

We can learn proportion; we can learn patience; we can learn to deal with matters big and small in an appropriate fashion. We can learn that those whom we love are the source of our joy and not convenient objects at which to lash out.  If we start with those whom we love most, perhaps we will then extend that love to others.

Shabbat Shalom!