Parshas Chukas — Speak to the Rock

Chapter 20 in this week’s Torah weekly reading begins with the event of Miriam’s death.  One verse later, the Torah tells us “Velah haya lahem mayim” there was no water for the Jewish people.  The miraculous fount of gushing water emanating from a rock suddenly stopped, mid-gush, mid-stream, just like that.  The Power that made it come forth turned off the tap and gone was the water.  This was the first realization the nation had that the water was all in the merit of Miriam.  Forty years all drank gustily, never knowing, never thanking she whose good deeds made it possible.  Suddenly, Miriam is gone and the water is turned off.

Now I don’t know about you, but if I were trekking many miles in desert land with all my loved ones and my water would be taken from me, I’d be more than a wee bit scared.  The Jews were normal in worrying about the now-defunct water fountain.  Yet what they did with the situation was problematic.  They began bashing past kindness.  Supposing you come to my home and I feed you breakfast, lunch and dinner, set up a bed for you, give you supplies for your shower.  You might safely assume I will serve you food tomorrow too, no?  I’ve exhibited that I’m concerned about you and want to take care of you.  G-d had brought down Manna for the Jews to eat, carried them on clouds, given them a miraculous water spout.  Shouldn’t the Jews have assumed that G-d would provide for them now, too?    But they didn’t.  They assumed the worst, thought their end was near, and lashed out, “loo givanoo…” we wish we’d died way back when.  You know those lines people say, “I wish I were dead” or such stuff?  Grumbling ingrates.  If only the Jews had been smart and just prayed, gratefully, saying (as did their forefather Jacob) “Kootantee mikal hachasadim” I am smaller than all the kindness G-d has done.  G-d has done so many miracles to get me here, please G-d continue to carry me forward.  That is a fine way to daven, and should have been the approach of the Jews.

At this point in the narrative, G-d tells Moshe to “take the staff”, assemble the entire nation and go with Ahron to the rock and speak to it and have it bring forth water again.  Moshe and Aharon head to the rock, staff in hand.  Then there is a snafu.  The rock doesn’t respond right away at the first “hello” said to it.  The nation is gathered and antsy.  And Moshe lashes out at them, saying, “listen you rebellious ones!”  He then hits the rock twice and, miracle of miracles, water gushes forth, the pipeline is open again, water is in abundance.

Ah, but G-d is not pleased.  G-d tells Moshe and Aharon, “because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of all the people,” therefore, as consequence, these two great leaders will NOT lead the Jews into the promised land.  What was the sin of Moshe and Aharon and why such a harsh decree?

The commentators analyze it from every angle.  There is the angle of anger that Moshe has, lashing out at the people.  Anger is deadly, it causes many tragedies.  But that is not reason enough to understand Moshe being blocked from entry into Israel.   There is the angle that Moshe talked about personally bringing the water out, instead of coaching it in terms of G-d doing the act.  Yet, that still doesn’t make us understand why leadership was taken away from these two spiritual giants.

My mother shared with me one version of the commentators’ explanation as it pertains to leadership skills.  You think Teddy Roosevelt made up the line, “speak softly and carry a big stick”, didn’t you?  Well, my friend, Teddy borrowed the idea from here.  There are two ways to discipline and lead a nation, or a child, or a student.  There is the harsh approach – the slap, the punishment, the consequence, the do-this-or-else approach.  It does get folks into line, but there is a lack there.  G-d wanted Moshe to carry the staff, to have the ability to censure and punish if need be, but to withhold using that stick and try instead the persuasion approach, the dialogue and talking.  And because he didn’t approach the rock that way, he failed in demonstrating to the Jews that speech and dialogue could connect them and compel them to serve G-d.

You see, my friends, Torah does have punishments listed in it.  Even death!  Yet, G-d would love it if we can finally come to Torah observance with the clear idea that G-d wants to nurture us, just as the host wants to provide for the guest, and that G-d wants our very best.  He didn’t give us Torah to find ways to find us in error and to punish us.  He gave us Torah because he wants us to have life-giving, thirst-quenching, nurturing lives.

May we all learn to “speak to the rock” that is our stubborn place and get our own stubbborn wills to yield without a whack.

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Be-er Miriam, A Family Woman Provides the Water (with no thanks, of course)

Chapter 20 in this week’s Torah portion tells us of the passing on of the righteous woman Miriam, older sister of Moshe.  After the Parsha tells us of her death, it then says, “vloh haya lahem mayim – there was no water.”    That was it.  Miriam dies and the water stops.

 All those years in the desert, the water came about because of the merit of Miriam, but she was so humble that no one realized it.  They took the water for granted and never once did anyone realize that it must be coming, this cascading munificence of thirst-quenching water, due to something.  They just accepted it.  And Miriam, she kept mum, never once saying, “folks, you have me to thank for slaking your thirst.”

 Miriam’s merit to bring water to the Jewish people was that way back when in Egypt, when she was but a young girl, she had waited by water to ensure the welfare of her baby brother, Moshe, who was hidden in the water.  Since G-d rewards with the same measure as the deed done, since her kindness was done by water, it was water that was given in her merit.

The power of a woman – to bring all good into the home, without a need for recognition – that is what we learn from Miriam.  Oft times it looks glamorous to be out and running to do kindness for every stranger, to be the soap-box orator urging the world to better itself.  Yet, what G-d treasures and rewards are those unglamorous, often overlooked, kindness we do within our own homes and families.

Never underestimate how valuable to G-d are the things you do for family.


interesting info on Miriam’s Well can be read about here:

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Helping Someone Else Be Complete


Many years ago a nobleman from an important Polish family converted to Christianity.  Valentin Pototzki became Avraham ben Avraham, and he found himself a corner in a Bais Medrash where he sat shteiging [learning Torah diligently], Tachas Kanfei HaShechina.  In those days, the church had incredible power, and with the help of some evil prattler from within the Jewish community, the church tracked down Avraham ben Avraham and had him arrested for being a proselyte.    The choice given the righteous convert was either convert back to Christianity or be killed.  Avraham ben Avraham chose death.

Poles from all over gathered to watch the killing of Avraham ben Avraham.  It was to take place in a section of Vilna where no Jews were allowed.  As the thousands of non-Jewish Polish fanatics, blood-thirsty and wanting to see a Jew killed, began filling up the plaza, one Jew, Rav Alexander Zuskind, blended in among them, trying to avoid notice.  He found a large tree near where they were soon to bring Avraham ben Avraham and hid behind it.  What was Rav Zuskind thinking by coming here?  Why risk his life to watch the execution of the righteous convert?

Avraham ben Avraham was brought by a carriage and the crowd watched as he was pushed and pulled to the front, where a huge fire awaited.  The church officials were going to burn Avraham ben Abraham; but once more, in public, they gave him the same choice – last chance, he can say he doesn’t want to be a Jew and his life would be spared.  With a strong voice, Avraham ben Avraham said his Shema and then, clearly, loudly, with utmost concentration, Avraham ben Avraham said the special blessing which is recited by one who is to die Al Kiddush Hashem [for the sanctification of G-d].

And from behind a tree, from the throat of Rabbi Zuskind came the answer “Amen” completing the blessing.

Blessings we say are complete when someone else acknowledges it with an Amen.  We Jewish people have the concept that when we join together, Agudah Achas, to glorify G-d, that is what makes the glorification complete.   None of us are able to operate alone.

We need to realize how we need each other, that we need to hear others express their closeness to G-d and spirituality, and we need to be able to respond an Amen to someone else’s spiritual quests.   We need to share the experience.

If Rabbi Zuskind was willing to risk his life to enable a righteous convert’s blessing be complete, shouldn’t we, who don’t have to risk our lives, do everything we can to make our friends’, neighbors’, families’ blessings complete by listening to it and responding Amen?  Shouldn’t we realize that acknowledging and respecting another person’s attempt at spirituality is what brings glory to our Creator and the best way of serving Him?  So, my friends, look around at anyone trying to grow in spirituality, and complete their work by acknowledging it.  V’Imru Amen.


To read more about Avraham ben Avraham you can go here:

This account of what happened with Rabbi Zuskind was brought to my attention through the wonderful book about the power of Amen.

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Fights, Machlokes and Korach – (ah, just be Shalaym, whole)

If you unscramble the Hebrew letters for the word fight, you see Machlokes can be recombined to spell Lakach Mavas which means taking death.  Same letters, different order.  Korach created Machlokes, which in turn ensured “Lakach Mavas”  he took for himself a big dose of death.

If you look at the core word in Machlokes you see the word Chelek, portion.  My portion, your portion, my side, your side, my ego and yours.  You divvy up the world, you create divisions between folks, you break up the beautiful symmetry and harmony that ought to have been.

Hey, one minute, you might say, didn’t Korach argue there should be no divisions among the Jews.  Let’s understand Korach’s arguments and then analyze the concept of Machlokes-fights.

We are taught Korach argued every Jew is equally holy (he was the first communist) and that there should be no leaders.  Since all were holy, there is no need for any one person to be “holier than thou” and, thence, he argued, there should be no such a concept as Aharon, the High Priest.  Boy did Korach mess up.  Judaism preaches unity, not uniformity.  We are not sardines in a can.  Each of us has a unique mission to play in this world.

The opposite of Machlokes is Shalom, from the roots of Shalaym (whole) or Shalaym (pay).  We are told by G-d there is no better vessel for blessings, to hold the good things and all the payments and rewards, other than Shalom/peace.  You want the bounty of G-d to stay in your life, you must have peace.  In fact, within this realm of honoring “wholeness”, it is a preference to make the blessings on food on whole objects, rather than cut ones.  Hence, if you have a roll, make the blessing on the whole roll and then cut it. Wholeness, it seems, is very praiseworthy.  It is the opposite of “chalakim” of chopped up parts.

Yeah, I know, we’ve analyzed many words, but haven’t gotten to an understanding of concepts of peace and disunity.

When a person is “shalaym” [whole], it means a person embraces his/her own relationship with G-d and gets to work on his/her assigned role.  When we are “whole” with our portion in life, we get “paid” for our service of G-d. This brings Shalom, peace to the person and to those around.  A person who is tortured, looking out at other people’s portions in life, such a person feels un-whole.  Such a person feels like he/she got only a “portion” of what he/she deserved, and is always chasing after something more, something else, instead of focusing on life’s mission.

Korach was rich.  That wasn’t enough for him. He had Divine Revelation.  That wasn’t enough for him.  He had illustrious children. That wasn’t enough for him.  He had a role in the Tabernacle.  Nope, still not enough.  For he was looking at what he might not have – he was thinking he only had “partial”, only a “chelek” of what he ought to be getting.

What is the difference between life and death?  In life, we can choose to do our mission, we can put our life to use, we can actually do G-d’s will.  In death, we no longer can accomplish.  It is over.  When a person is focusing on what everyone else has, such person is not focused on his own tasks and usually doesn’t end up accomplishing or working on his mission.  He is a walking dead person.

Shalom is not communism.  It is not the argument of Korach, of “let us all be the same.”  Shalom is concentrating on our little slice of life, on our own unique mission of G-d, of doing G-d’s will.

Now we can understand how there is a concept of Machlokes which is not harmful. We are told that a “machlokes l’shaym shamayim” is not the killing variety Korach indulged in.  The classic example given is the arguments and disagreements between Hillel and Shammai.  What those two great sages were doing in their discord was trying to hammer out how G-d wants us to serve him.  Neither wanted the other’s blessings.  Neither wanted to diminish the other or aggrandize themselves.  Therefore, their Machlokes, if you unscramble the letters, can also be read “Chalak or Lakach Tohm.  The word Tohm is innocence/purity – even wholeness.

Fighting for G-d is about our mission in life.  Fighting for our pride is about ignoring our mission in life. Hence, Korach got death for his fight — while Hillel and Shammai got immortality for their fight, as their arguments will be carried throughout time in the sacred Talmud.

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Sorting out the Fakers – not that easy, after all

This week’s Torah portion is about a mistake our nation made in the past.  We were set to head into Eretz Yisroel just a short span of time after leaving slavery.  And we got cold feet.  As a stalling tactic, we asked for scouts to go check out what was going on in the Holy Land.

G-d lets us go this route.  The Parsha begins with the words “Shlach Lecha” send for yourself.  G-d tells Moshe that He allows it – but it is not for His will.  Lecha – for yourself.  When we try to figure out what is good for own selves instead of sticking to the exact G-d plan, often He allows us that freedom.  “Go for yourself,” He says.  Head down that path.  Bechira – we have free choice. G-d allows us to take the roads we shouldn’t  But the end result is never good when we do so.

Klee Yakar, however, reads the words Shelach Lecha a bit differently.  He says, Shelach Lecha Anashim – You, Moshe, pick the anashim – important, good people.  And I quote “because most of the world is mistaken” in who is a good person and think that the people “who pretend and show off themselves as keshairim-kosher/good people and dress themselves” in clothing that makes them look like good people only to fool others.    In Yiddish there is a phrase “tzaddik in der peltz” a person who pretends to be a holy roller by putting on the same types of clothing that the righteous wear.  These are the folks to be very wary of.  The folks who think outside dress will make them a good person and that they can fool the whole world by having all the trappings of piety with none of the deeds.

However, it is hard to discern who is real and who is a fake.  That is why Hashem told Moshe not to let the nation decide who was good enough to go as a spy, but Moshe himself was to be the person who could separate the real good people from the fakers  and pick the scouts.was to choose who would go.

Unfortunately, even though those guys who were chosen were perhaps once good, they did not live up to their task and stumbled into sin.  Ad Yom Moso — a person is not a good person until he is on his deathbed, for even if today he is still not a faker, tomorrow he might mess up BIG TIME.

So, my friends, careful not to judge piety by levush, by outside appearances.  It doesn’t mean a person is special just because they adorn themselves as a pious person.  And even when a person is a special person, each person can fall.   Careful who you hearken to, careful who you let persuade you.  The moment a person tries to talk you away from a G-d centric life and outlook, that person is no longer someone you ought to be listening to — irrespective of his dress, irrespective of how high and holy he might have been yesterday.  Living a Torah life requires us to keep our inner compass set on “true G-d” direction.


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YIGDAL – Becoming Greater Through Restraint of Anger

Yigdal Nah –

In this week’s Torah portion, the Jews mess up with the sin of the spies (chayt ha’meraglim). The whole story is quite tragic. The Jews were poised to enter Israel. They send a posse of spies to check out the lay of the land…and out of twelve spies, ten come back speaking ill of the land. They speak so convincingly to the people that, despite the compelling testimony of the two spies who were urging them to go for it, the nation decides they’d rather head back to Egypt then head to the promised land.

The first thing we have to understand is why the ten spies were dead set against the switch from desert domicile to lush land of vegetation. Herein is a struggle many of us have to face every now and then. A baby is taken care of fully – diapered, cleaned, fed on demand. Woe is us if we remain babies for us forever, no matter how easy it might be. Spiritually, there was that infant stage our nation underwent in the desert.   All you had to do was sit and learn and the manna came from heaven, the water from the rock, the clothing grew and washed on you…it was quite clear G-d was taking care of us. Now, these leaders realized that our nation was being asked to “graduate” to another mode of spirituality. In Israel we would have to plough, plant, water, hoe, reap…and still understand our connection with G-d. That, they decided, as way too hard, beyond their capabilities. And so like the little child who doesn’t want to walk, or the college student who never wants to graduate, or like anyone who doesn’t want to take the next maturation step, these folks decided to try to stall the clock and not go on to another level. (A girl who was once institutionalized once explained that many in the psych ward felt that way – that it was way easier to hide there from real life.)

G-d at this point offers to Moshe that He will wipe out the nation and begin a whole nation starting with Moshe. Moshe pleads for his people…and one of the things he pleads is “Yigdal” -he begs G-d to “become bigger”.

We often think we are big when we show our might- – when we “let folks have it.” But here Moshe is saying something that Pirkei Avos also notes, “ayzehoo gibor…who is really strong – one who can conquer his yetzer- his emotion.” Moshe is saying that, yes, when G-d’s punishing might is in effect it makes folks fear and acknowledge Him. But Moshe wants G-d to demonstrate His Might – even bigger- to the point where even with a warrant for anger, G-d holds back and is able to let mercy be the dominating force.

G-d did so. May we all learn to do so in our own lives.

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Pride in Getting the Job Done (not only the star role is beloved by G-d)

This week’s Torah Portion, Parshas Naso, has a continuation of the count of the Levite families and the jobs assigned in the carrying of the Tabernacle.  In Chapter 4, verse 22, it says, “Count the sons of Gershon, also them.”  The words “also them” is only written in relation to this family.  Why?  Because other families carried seemingly more important things, such as the actual vessels of the Tabernacle.  The Gershoni family carried the outside curtains.  It didn’t look all that glamorous their assignment.  However, they did their job perfectly, with enthusiasm, realizing they were not to aspire for someone else’s job, but to do their G-dly mission.  Therefore, G-d added in the verse the words, “also them” to give them acknowledgment – to, so to speak, say “also they are very important”.  (as explained by HaRav Moshe Feinstein, ZT”L).

Many moons ago, my dramatic flare finally got rewarded with one of the main parts in the school play.  Ah, that was to have arrived in the petty world of teen-hood and high school politics (why schools allow it is beyond my ken).  Like all good high school drama productions, this one had more drama before the production ever got underway.  There were those who deeply resented my having been assigned a star role.  There were others who felt slighted they hadn’t received it.  At a certain point, though young in years, I made a mature decision.  I opted out.  I had no interest in the animosity.  It wasn’t worth it.  If my career were to be heading to Hollywood, a high school play wouldn’t make a difference on my CV.  And if my career led elsewhere, then surely the high school play wouldn’t make a whit of a difference.  In other words, in the general scheme of life, it wasn’t important to star in the play (though it would have felt mighty good for one night).  I don’t know what conferences were held about me behind closed doors and how many teachers (and the principal) tried to get me to reconsider.  Yup, my stubbornness which was legendary stayed in place.  I had made my choice, and I would stick to it.

I ended up doing the lighting (which was a blast) and after the play was over was helping haul props and scenery offstage when I bumped into our legendary principal.  She was so shocked to see me she did a literal stand-in-one-place-mouth-agape moment.  I had no clue what she wanted of me, when she asked me, “What are you doing?!”  “Uh oh,” thought I, as I dropped one end of a heavy scenery I was lugging, “what did I do wrong now?”  I explained I was just helping load the van outside and she looked very bewildered.  It took some time, but then she looked amused.  The next day a friend let me know the principal had a chat with her thereafter.  I s’pose she had to unload her thought process to someone.  She told my classmate she had thought I was being a spoilsport by dropping out of the play.  However, now she saw I really meant no harm, but just wanted to have a more peaceful existence.  It might have been my principal’s roundabout way to tell me, “you did good, girl,” by telling those words to my friend, knowing it would come around to me.

That one decision has allowed me to see life a bit differently as I travel it.  Whereas four years before that had happened, while singing in a choir, I had let my voice soar way above any other voice, beyond the range of even the harmony, to a point where it didn’t blend seamlessly into the choir, I had matured now to understand the concept of teamwork and was able to drop the starring role and drag scenery instead.

It is a crucial skill, in work, in life, in family dynamics, to understand how to put one’s full effort, heart and soul to pick up the work needed to be done by you and only you…precisely you… because no one else is doing it.  It is ever more crucial to remember G-d values each time we pick up the task needed to be done and do it with love and care.

My father (yup, I was blessed with the best teacher!) would tell us whatever we would do in life, we must do it fully, with pride, and for G-d.  He cited Chanoch as being the role model to emulate.  Chanoch, we are taught, was a cobbler, a shoemaker.  Each stitch he stitched was done to perfection.  My father would tell us, if we were to be sanitation collectors, he wanted the blocks we’d be assigned to be the cleanest and neatest.  If life were to make us shoemakers, he wanted our end product shined and tip-top.  He wanted us to know how to give our all to doing our job fully, with all thoughts toward G-d.

Ants, by the way, get this.  If ever you want to study efficient teamwork, go observe the ants.

Going back to my drama moments, I quote Dan Goldstein in his manifesto on how to do successful improv, where he says, “GET BEHIND THE STORY.  Try not to think about yourself in longform. Instead, always ask yourself “how can I contribute to the larger picture?” and “what is my function in this piece?”

Isn’t that our role in life, to “get behind the story”, figure out G-d’s story in the world, and then ask ourselves “What is my function in that story?”

I think that is what we are learning from the Gershoni family described in this week’s Parsah.  So be it that someone else got the glory of carrying the Ark.  For them what was glorious was doing the job that needed to be done (for no one else was doing it) to the perfect dimension.  Next time you need to grab a rag and wipe up the spill that no one else will, remember G-d loves you for doing it, so long as you do it with your whole heart and soul.


A postscript for teachers or youth leaders:  As a teacher, it is not just about texts you should be teaching, but also about middos.  A very fun way of getting social skills clear to many would be to use improv exercises.  There are fundamentals in improv which have huge impact on middos and interacting with peers.  For example, you must always watch the cues of others.  You cannot “deny” the scene someone else sets.  The entire improv workshop really hones some very basic mentschlikeit themes.  If you are a teacher and interested in more info about what an improv workshop is all about and how its fundamentals teach middos, just let me know.  I’ll be happy to share.


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