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Talking to Rocks

Thriving in a free society requires different skills than surviving the wilderness.

I have found myself thinking lately about how the world seemed to become more patient during the pandemic. In the midst of a collective trauma, we were briefly more willing to extend kindness to others. But humans tend to have short memories and I’ve since noticed impatience creeping back in. On my daily commute, I hear more honking horns. I feel impatience in my own gut when things are not moving as fast as I want them to.

In this week’s double Torah portion, we learn about the consequences of letting impatience overtake us. The Israelites are nearing the promised land and find themselves without water in the wilderness. They complain to Moses, who asks God for guidance and is told to bring forth water from a rock. Moses strikes the rock and the water flows. 

If this sounds familiar, it’s because a similar situation unfolded in the Book of Exodus. Shortly after the Israelites crossed through the Sea of Reeds, they complained to Moses that they had no water to drink. At that time, God told Moses to strike a rock and water would flow, which he did. But this time, Moses is punished and told that because he hit the rock he cannot enter the promised land. Why was his punishment so severe for doing something he was told to in the past?

While these two instances look similar, there are important contextual nuances. In Exodus, the Israelites had only recently left Egypt. Freedom was new. The Israelites were unfamiliar with a post-slavery experience in which their basic needs were not immediately provided for them and were still far from receiving the Torah and the spiritual refinement it would bring. The people had an urgent need for water and Moses had to respond in kind. In that context, God’s instruction to Moses to strike the rock was appropriate. 

This week’s Torah portion is many years later. At this point in the journey, both Moses and God have demonstrated their ability to meet the peoples’ needs. And yet the people still complain. “Why have you brought God’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there,” they ask Moses. “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!” (Numbers 20:4-5) Have they not learned anything? Have their needs ever gone unmet? Have they forgotten all that was done for them?

In the face of this, God tells Moses not to strike the rock, but to speak to it. The Israelites were about to transition into a new life in their own land. It was time for them to learn new ways of acting. By speaking to the rock, Moses had the opportunity to model a more civilized approach for getting what was needed — dialogue as opposed to violent forcefulness. But Moses was impatient. He called the people rebels and hit the rock, even though God had explicitly told him to use his words and take a more gentle approach. 

Moses needed to cultivate the virtue of savlanut (patience), to tolerate the people’s urgent need and not let it move him to violence. The root of the word savlanut is “to bear,” a notion more apparent in the English word forbearance. As a leader, his obligation was to bear their feelings and not let them become his own. Hitting the rock is what Rabbi David Wolfe Blank refers to as wilderness behavior. In the wilderness, survival requires force. But in civilized society, it requires patience and the cultivation of skills to coexist with “those who seem as inflexible as rocks and trust that they can flow as water.” 

If the people hoped to leave behind their wilderness mentality and be worthy of the promised land, they would have to cultivate savlanut. In failing to model this behavior for the people, Moses showed he was not yet ready to enter the promised land. The Bechor Shor, a 12th-century French commentator, sees an indication of this in the fact that Moses had to hit the rock twice in our Torah portion before the rock would give water. In Exodus, he only had to hit it once. This was God giving Moses a hint, an opportunity to pause and reflect, to act differently than he had the first time. 

In her book Torah Journeys: An Inner Path to the Promised Land, Rabbi Shefa Gold reminds us that until we learn to speak to the rock, we will be denied entrance into the promised land. We must root out the wilderness behaviors within us to elevate society to a higher spiritual level and extend our collective memory to recall the consequences of not doing so. Let us practice talking to the rock, calming the anger that may cause us to lash out, trusting that with time and patience, rocks can flow with abundant water.

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on July 1, 2023. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.

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