Last night I decided to pay a visit to an old friend, a leading rabbinic figure of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community. For nearly an hour I made the case to the Kopitchinitzer Rebbe for why it is essential that their be a permanent, government-established pluralistic prayer pavilion adjacent to the Western Wall. Even as he disagreed, he was very respectful as he always is. “Jews can pray how ever they wish to pray. But the Wall is not the place for this” he gently insisted. I turned to our shared liturgy for support, “In order for a new light to shine upon Zion, ‘every one of us must merit’ (nizke kulanu) in hastening to radiate its glow.” Again his problem was the venue. I told him a story from years ago about a mother whose son died liberating the Wall in 1967 who sought to pray for him on the exact place where he fell – which was located in the section of the Wall traditionally associated with men’s prayer. The mother was not allowed entry. He conceded that this situation should have been handled better. “If she would have approached a rabbi on duty” he said, “it would have been proper for him to ask the men to vacate the men’s section so that she could pray there and honor her son’s memory.”
On my way back to my hotel I realized that I had been mistaken to make my forceful case with him. He was no more likely to change his conviction than I was. Each of us comes from a place of deep faith. The person who broke faith was Israel’s Prime Minister by abruptly suspending his prior commitment to honor the convictions of the majority of the Jewish world. When we blame or credit the wrong source for a problem or achievement, social psychologists call it a fundamental attribution error.
What makes Moses’ sin in striking the rock in this week’s portion of Torah so unforgivable? Even as the water still flows and the life-giving miracle still works, commentators have struggled throughout history to comprehend the punitive consequences of Moses’ misbehavior that makes the Promised Land unreachable for him. Perhaps he makes a type of fundamental attribution error when he says to the people: “Shall we bring forth water out of this rock” (Num. 20: 10). Moses attributes the wonder to we, rather than saying “Shall God bring forth.” Moreover, by striking the rock, Moses makes it appear more like his own agency is producing the water, rather than speaking (as God commanded) and watching the water Divinely flow. God says to Moses in the aftermath: “You did not keep faith (he-emantem) with Me to make Me holy” (Num. 20:12). As commentator Richard Elliot Friedman writes, “By word and act Moses is thus appropriating to himself an act of God.” Moses overreaches. This points to the perils of fundamental attribution error.
Consider how susceptible we are to this tendency. In a culture that prizes and evaluates outcomes, we often misappropriate origins and miscalculate causes. Do we always earn our successes exclusively? Are our failures always due to the shortcomings of others?
Praying the word ‘Amen’ signifies faithful agreement. Amen is literally related to the word meaning ‘faith’ (emuna). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (uncle of the Kopitchinitzer Rebbe) encouraged us to consider “the Divine margin in all attainments.” In the wake of a painful week for worldwide Jewry, it is important to recall that such a Divine margin obtains when faith is kept, rather than when it is fractured.