The Consequences of Living in the Past

In this week’s sidra, Pinchas, God reminds Moses that he may see the Promised Land from afar but could not enter it – this, as a result of the incident reported earlier in Numbers 20. In that scene, the people gather against Moses, demanding water. God bids Moses to draw water for the threatening throng by speaking to a rock. Accosted by the angry assembly, Moses says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water out of this rock for you?’ And Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice.” (Numbers 20: 10-11). And because he hit the rock rather than speaking to it, God says, “Moses… you shall not bring this community to the land that I have given them!” (Numbers 20:12).

Why such a harsh punishment for a relatively minor infraction? Why would a moment of weakness bar Moses from fulfilling his mission and reaching the goal he had worked so long and so hard to achieve? Oh God, you are SO STRICT!

Through the years, many Jewish commentators have tried to identify the sin and thus justify the punishment. One tradition holds that Moses was guilty of using physical violence instead of verbal communication. (When our children act out physically, we say, “Talk, don’t hit. Use your words.”) Maimonides and many others take Moses to task for calling the people “rebels” when all they were asking for was one of life’s basic necessities. Levi Yitzchak of Berdechev wrote that Moses should have helped the people, not rebuke them. And there are those who criticize Moses for acting on his anger. What the 14th-15th century priest, Thomas à Kempis, said is so very true: “When anger enters, wisdom departs.”

And of course, we understand how persons in positions of communal responsibility need to be “symbolic exemplars” (Jack Bloom) and are thus held to a higher standard.

Not wanting to heap yet another sin to the list, 19th century Italian scholar Shmuel David Luzzato hesitated to come up with any new interpretations of how what it was that the greatest of prophets deserved such a punishment (Itturei Torah). I, however, am not as hesitant. So with apologies to Luzzato and Moshe Rabenu, I will venture two more interpretations.

In order to understand the full context, we have to refer back to the first time that Moses drew water from a rock (Exodus 17). There, God commanded Moses to draw water from the rock by taking his staff and striking the rock. The idea that the first time Moses was told to hit the rock while the second time, years later, he was told to speak to the rock suggests two other possible explanations for Moses’ action, each of which would suggest that it was time for him to turn in his staff.

Perhaps Moses struck the rock because he wasn’t fully listening to God. He heard what he expected to hear based in his previous experience, but not what was really being said. Visionary leadership requires presence and attentive listening.

And there is the one more thing that would have disqualified Moses from entering the Promised Land, not as a punishment, but as a consequence of what his actions revealed about him. Despite what he had been told in this new situation, he relied on what had worked in the past, thinking, “It worked before, it should work now.” Moses either did not understand or did not accept that times and circumstances had changed, that what worked before might not work now; and if it did still work (the water still came out), yesterday’s ways may not be most appropriate for today’s needs.

When we remain in the past, we cannot truly live in the present nor can we have vision for the future.

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