Friday, June 30, 2017

Chukat: This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You

You've probably heard me say this before: I really don't care for the expression, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."
I don't agree with it at all. And I have strong feelings on the subject, because not only do I think it's completely backwards, I also think it does us all quite a bit of harm. Bones heal. When someone is in a terrible accident - God forbid - their bodies do recover, either quickly or sometimes over a longer period of time and with the help of physical therapy. But the psychological and mental wounds often linger A LOT longer. In my time at Ohev Shalom, I have sadly seen many family rifts, where people have not spoken to one another for decades. Almost never did such a dispute begin with physical violence. Most of the time, it began with words... and it cut a lot deeper than a stick or a stone ever could.

Words are in the news a lot these days. Collectively, we parse the meanings of "bonafide" and "hope," and realize that even a single word can have many levels of nuance and tone; and sometimes people's lives hinge on those interpretations.
In looking at this week's Torah portion, I also find myself thinking about the use of words to attack other people, specifically with name-calling. Our parashah includes the particularly infamous story of Moses striking a rock to bring forth water for the thirsting Israelites. In doing so, Moses dooms himself to never set foot in the Land of Israel, as God vows: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers, 20:12). At first glance, it isn't clear exactly why Moses receives such a harsh punishment. It's not like he was doing anything new!

Back in Exodus, chapter 17, God told Moses specifically TO strike a rock to access water - so there was precedent. A few verses before this ominous incident, Moses' sister, Miriam, had just died, so emotion and grief could have clouded his
judgment as well. He'd also been leading the people for FORTY years, so his patience was understandably wearing a bit thin. On top of all of this, I want to add another possible explanation: His words. As Moses raises his staff to bash the stone, he calls out: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock!?!" (20:10) Moses never called them "rebels" before; he never previously resorted to name-calling and insults. Perhaps that was the step over the line? Maybe that was God's indication that Moses no longer could do his job properly, and needed to be replaced by another.

Verbal abuse and personal attacks are low tactics to employ in a confrontation. They divert attention away from the real issue(s) at hand, and turn everyone's focus onto the poor choice of wording. And it doesn't achieve anything either.
The Torah demonstrates how Moses' slander backfired, and ultimately wounded him more than it did the people. It is a good reminder for all of us that what we say - and how we say it - matters. A lot. It can do tremendous harm, and cause pain that lasts a very long time. Words often hurt much, much more than just stones and sticks. Here's the thing; Anger is an important emotion. It can be uncomfortable, and it sometimes blazes uncontrollably, and we don't know how to rein ourselves in. So instead we try to ignore it or stuff it away... but we can't. We need to acknowledge anger and bring it in, compassionately, to our lives. However, that doesn't mean we have license to injure others with our rage, or say whatever we feel like and expect it to be forgiven later. Remember the case of Moses and his name-calling. Meanness sometimes backfires, and injures the person trying to cause harm. Even when we just hear others employing verbal abuse, when we're "only" the bystanders, it can still hurt. Chukat offers us a cautionary tale; and it should trump our desire to attack others, with sticks, stones, tweets, or words.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of cogdogblog oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Zach Dischner on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Michael Griffin, US Army on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

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