When repentance seems remote

Moses strikes the rock in this week’s portion of Torah. The punitive consequences seem unfair. Not merely because the sin seems subtle, but because it is so irreversible. After all, Moses could be very persuasive. He had persuaded God to reconsider punishments before. But in this case there is no room for appeal, no compassion for a penitent prophet.

What was the sin? “‘Listen now, you rebells’ shouted Moses, ‘Shall we produce water for you from this cliff’?” (Num. 20:10).  Perhaps it was a fundamental attribution error (“Shall we produce’).  Perhaps it was a pejorative depiction of the people (rebels).  Maybe Moses lost his temper (shouted Moses).  Yet again, maybe it was just time to tell Moses he was not the leader who would preside over the conquest of the land.   For all of the conjecture, God is actually clear about what went wrong: “You did not trust in Me to make Me holy in the presence of the Israelites” (Num. 20:12).

Earlier this week following morning minyan a member of our community asked, “How does one make God holy?”  Beyond the lip-service of the Kaddish – which expresses an intent to make God’s name holy – what deeds bestow divine holiness?  Works that generate goodness.  Acts that relieve suffering.  Gestures that make Judaism attractive.  Each of these examples is social, external, based upon the influence we have on others.

Yet, is not repentance also an example of making holiness vivid?  Perhaps.  When it is more than self-serving.  When it warms faith in others, the soft glow of repentance does indeed radiate holiness.  Moses’ best years of teaching and leadership are still come.  Despite the abrupt limitation with which he must now come to terms, he will teach us all about the potential of repentance later on (Deuteronomy, Chapter 30).

“From the streetcar window we may see the hunt for wealth and pleasure, the onslaught upon the weak, faces expressing suspicion and contempt” observes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He notes that the holy often retires from sight when exposed to light, just as humility can be extinguished by the awareness of it.  Yet the holiness planted deep within us can readily resurface.

We all experiences lapses in judgement, moments of weakness when we’re not at our best.  Such stumbles can be followed by a new sweep of momentum toward the aspirational goals.  May Moses’ recovery inspire ours.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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