A Message for Parashat Hukat 2018
Click here to view as PDF
Although Moshe's sin at Mei Merivah stands as a pivotal event in our national history, the Torah is surprisingly vague in its description of the exact mistake. God rebukes Moshe for lacking trust and failing to sanctify Him before Am Yisrael, but never details the specific blunder. There are, therefore, dozens of traditional approaches and interpretations to this episode. Perhaps the Torah’s silence in pinpointing one particular offense, however, points to the fact that Moshe’s sin lay not in a specific sentence or action but rather in its general approach.
The episode began with the nation’s belligerent confrontation:
And the community (ha-am) had no water, and they assembled against (va-yikahalu) Moshe and Aharon. (Bemidbar 20:2)
Upon hearing their angry complaints, Moshe and Aharon fled:
And Moshe and Aaron with him, came from the assembly (ha-kahal) to the entrance of Ohel Mo’ed… (6)
By shifting the description of the people from “the community” (v. 2) to “the assembly” (v. 6), the Torah called attention to the people’s unified stance against Moshe and Aharon at that time. It painted a scene where the perceived threat from the people lay not in their claims, but in their intimidating stance and positioning.
God then instructed Moshe:
Take the staff and assemble (ve-hakhel) the community (ha-edah), you and Aharon your brother, and you shall speak to the rock before their eyes… (8)
Surprisingly, God’s advice for dealing with the people at that time did not refer to combatting their strength of unison by dispersing them and scattering them about. Instead, He commanded Moshe to regroup the people and redirect their potential for unity toward another purpose. Moshe failed at this mission:
And Moshe and Aharon gathered the assembly (ha-kahal) in front of the rock… (10)
Instead of engaging the people as a “community” (edah) in need of a repurposed “assembly” (kahal), as God had commanded, Moshe approached them as an unalterable “assembly” that awaited confrontation. Whereas God had instructed him to handle the situation by embracing the nation’s latent unity and rebuilding it, Moshe saw their unity as a threat and prepared to fight against it. Moshe’s inability to approach the situation in the way that God had demanded exposed his limits for future leadership.
God perhaps hinted at the importance of this approach again, during a later conflict in the parashah:
…And the people grew impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moshe…And God sent against the people the viper-serpents, and they bit the people, and many people of Yisrael died. (21:4-6)
After the people cried to Moshe, God instructed him the remedy:
“Make you a viper and put it on a standard, and so then, whoever is bitten will see it and live.” (8)
He taught Moshe that overcoming the dangers of the viper-serpents would not come through a head-on attack of the venomous amphibians. That was a losing battle. Instead, he was to redirect the snakes’ powers over life and death by constructing a viper that would not take life but rather grant life.
All too often our own instincts during times of conflict resemble that of Moshe. We believe that the appropriate way to overcome a threat is to strengthen ourselves and defeat it in a duel. We fail to realize, however, that the ideal approach to resolution is often a patient acceptance of the challenge while setting our eyes on reorienting the challenger.
Psychotherapist Viktor Frankl taught his students and patients a method known as “paradoxical intention.” He told how he was once pulled over by a policeman for driving through a yellow light. Rolling down his window, he greeted the cop with a flood of self-accusations: “You’re right, officer,” he initially told him. “How could I do such a thing?” he continued, “I am sure I will never do it again, and this will be a lesson to me.” The officer did his best to calm and reassure Frankl, telling him that such a thing could happen to anyone, and that he was sure he would never do so again. Instead of engaging the officer in an argument in defense of himself, Frankl overcame the challenge by embracing the officer’s approach and redirecting the impending assault from rebuke to remorse.
More often, however, Frankl instructed his patients to use paradoxical intention for dealing with personal issues of anxiety or compulsion. He told about a young physician who consulted him regarding his fear of perspiring. The anticipatory anxiety of perspiration was often enough to bring about excessive sweating. Instead of defeating the anxious perspiration through denial, Frankl advised the patient to embrace the sweating. He told the man that when he sensed the onset of sweating he should deliberately show people how much he could sweat. He should then say to himself, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” By redirecting the sweat from a source of embarrassment to one of pride, the man was able to permanently vanquish his anxiety.
Beyond the specific missteps of Moshe at Mei Merivah, his mistaken approach to resolving conflict proved most fatal. A leader who consistently combats the strengths of his adversaries with his own might may prevail for a time. Ultimately, however, his power will drain and he will concede defeat. Enduring leaders emerge instead by carefully redirecting the incoming threats. Their strength is found in their embrace of the difficulties as they deliberately assign them a new purpose or plan.