Moses was never allowed to enter the Promised Land because he struck a rock. Sound familiar? This week, we read the infamous story
of why our great leader, Moses - who brought us out of slavery, parted the Sea of Reeds, gave us manna to eat for 40 years, carried down the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and put up with decades of incessant kvetching - was not allowed to join the people crossing into Canaan. And the official reason? God told him to bring forth water from a rock by speaking to it, and he instead struck the rock. A puzzling story, to say the least. But, as always, there's really a lot more going on underneath the surface. Luckily for us, we don't have to strike anything to get to it...
Many commentators focus on analyzing Moses' actions to determine what went wrong. Rashbam says he struck the rock twice; emphasizing his deliberate transgression of God's command and his
egregious violent behavior. Rashi chastises Moses for yelling at the Israelites and calling them names: "Listen, you rebels!" (Numbers, 20:10). And Ramban talks about how Moses makes it seem like he and Aaron are the ones performing the miracle, not God: "Shall we get water for you from this rock?" But before we bury Moses under all of our judgmental hindsight (as if the Israelites weren't already giving him enough flack...), I want to focus our attention for a moment on what ISN'T stated in the text. Was Moses perhaps struggling with tremendous personal grief at that very moment, and might that have clouded his judgment and his normally patient demeanor?
One verse before the people began moaning about thirst, the Torah informed us that Moses' sister, Miriam, died. How did that affect him? Was he given any time to mourn privately or publicly? Still today, we find it hard to make space for our leaders to process grief (or really any difficult emotion) in the public sphere. I recall stories like Bill Belichick coaching a football game the day after his father died or
Pete Sampras crying in the middle of an Australian Open quarterfinal tennis match, because he had just learned that his long-time coach had been diagnosed with cancer. For years, people talked about the moment on the campaign trail in 2008 when Hillary Clinton cried. Feelings make us uncomfortable. We want to be supportive, compassionate, and understanding. But we also feel anxiety about our own vulnerability, and we lash out at emotional leaders and call them 'weak.' I think sometimes it's easier to focus on what Moses did wrong than to empathize with him after something terrible just happened in his personal life. Some people (men especially) would rather say: "Just walk it off, buddy." Or worse, we could follow Miller Lite's example and say, "Man Up!"
I'm sure Moses could have reacted better. But we are also guilty of judging someone else's behavior in a very trying moment, and of setting Moses up for failure by demanding he live up to impossible
expectations. It might be too late for Moses, but we still have a chance to learn from the tragic outcome of this story. How do we treat our leaders? How quickly do we shove them up on top of pedestals and refuse to let them down? And perhaps more generally, how can we raise our own comfort level with difficult emotions? These are questions that each person needs to contemplate for him or herself. And hopefully we can begin to make changes and lower our expectations, before we doom another communal leader to some unfortunate rock-striking behavior.
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