What Moses Forgot

Learn To Live Your Life

(Part 1)
Learn to live your life with all your heart
And all your soul and all your mind
And love all humankind as you would love yourself

(Part 2)
Learn to live your life with all your heart
And all your soul and all your mind
And love all humankind

(Part 3)
We’ve got happy lives to live
We’ve got open arms to give
We’ve got hope down deep inside
Because in love we do reside

(As brought from the Art of Mentoring to Teva/Adamah by Cara Michelle Silverberg. Hebrew adaptation by Cara Michelle Silverberg, Laura Bellows and Daniel Kieval.  To hear the song, go here).

It feels good to read and sing this song, especially given the way it creatively incorporates the Shma and the Torah’s command that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  Of course, after we have sung them, the words of this song might strike us as simplistic.  I suppose that is the blessing and the burden of song lyrics:  they boil down complex wisdom into bite size jingles for easy consumption and smooth digestion around a camp fire.  Yet after the happy feelings and the group hug high that they produce, we are left with the nagging suspicion that the good life is far more elusive than simply saying we will live wholly, love fully, and hope deeply.

Cynics all are we. I suspect that we have been trained with almost Pavlovian conditioning to assume that living wholly, loving fully and hoping deeply are essentially unattainable.  We hear a song like this one, with its instructions for reaching meaning and menschlikhkeit, and we tell ourselves with a sad scoff that nothing truly life-changing could ever be based upon such simplicity.

Hardened by the exhausting demands of a leadership role he had never really wanted, Moses went the route of this very type of cynicism. I look at his angry, rock striking response to the Israelites at Merivah, and I want to weep for him. He forgot, even for such a brief period of time, how to live wholly with the people, to love them fully, and to hope deeply for them. Don’t just read the words of his interchange with the Israelites after God tells him to bring water out of the rock for them by speaking to it; feel those words:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water…” Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”  And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod.  Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. (Number 20:7-11)

Of course, right after the people were sated, God punished Moses and Aaron by forbidding them entry into the promised land claiming, “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Was Moses and Aaron’s behavior so egregious that it would merit such a harsh reaction from God?  What was the actual substance of their sin?  After all, if they truly should not have struck the rock, why would God let water pour from it at all?

Some commentators say that they failed to affirm God’s sanctity, when they used violence instead of speech to coax water from the rock.  By being coercive, they taught the people to assume that God’s leadership and all good leadership is violent and coercive.

Other commentators say that their real sin consisted of giving the people the false impression that they, not God, brought the water from the rock.  “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” was a rhetorical question, whose implied answer was, “Yes, of course we shall!  We are Moses and Aaron.  The water you will drink comes from us.”

Yet a third approach asks us, as I wrote above, not to read Moses and Aaron’s words so much as to feel them.  At the time of the rock incident, Moses was eighty-two years old.  He was worn down and out by the people’s endless war of emotional attrition.  We can imagine how living wholly with them, loving them fully, hoping for them deeply could become empty gestures for him and his brother.  He still had all the great qualities of a great leader, save the one he needed most:  empathy.  Looking out at the mass of humanity standing around the rock, he did not see terrified people thirsty for water.  He saw animals lowing and braying, requiring the whack of his rod to force them obediently back into the herd.  He insulted them by calling them rebels.  He smashed his rod onto the rock, letting its water flow, but you and I can imagine him fantasizing that the rock was the people’s heads.

We can empathize with Moses’ lack of empathy.  Who of us has not been there in our tired, frustrated dealings with loved ones, friends, associates, colleagues, employees?  However, Moses was no mere leader.  He was the one who spoke face to face with God, who saw God with plain sight, v’lo b’hidot, without the intermediary of riddles, or symbols or dreams.  He knew better, he needed to empathize better and to hold on to his ragged compassion, like a parent gently but firmly clutching a kicking, screaming little child.

We look at Moses and we want to weep with and for him.  God, I think, wanted to weep for him too.  “Moses, you and your brother failed to sanctify Me, the source of compassionate empathy, by showing the people how lacking in it you have become.  Moses, I love you, you are My trusted servant, but your leadership will have to end, for you no longer remember the essence of leadership: to truly love and care for the people you lead.”

I wonder and I worry, as we approach the celebration of  America’s birthday.  Who in our own day will speak out to and for America, reminding all those who lead us that compassionate empathy for the people, more than anything else, is what great leadership is about?  Who will remind them all that this is the only way in which to lead America back to being a promised land?

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)