By Rabbi Yossy Goldman
A life sentence for jaywalking? Twenty years for chewing gum in public?! Singapore notwithstanding, surely that’s over the top.
Was it so different for Moses, who, in this week’s reading, is punished and denied entrance to the Promised Land for the seemingly minor infraction of hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?
The people are clamoring for water in the wilderness. Hashem tells Moshe to speak to a certain rock (he was meant to ask nicely) and promises that, miraculously, water will flow from the rock. Commentary enlightens us as to the behind-the-scenes reasons for Moshe actually striking the rock, but in the end the miracle happens anyway, and the people’s thirst is quenched.
If your average rabbi today would make a rock produce water, even if the rock needed more than mere gentle persuasion, surely it would be hailed as the greatest miracle of the century, and the rabbi would win the Nobel Prize for chemistry! But for Moses it is a problem? Even if it would have been a greater sanctification of the Divine had he only spoken to the rock, must he incur such a severe penalty for a minor infraction?
The answer, we are told, is that responsibility is commensurate with the individual. If a child messes up, it is entirely forgivable. For an adult who should know better, we are less likely to be as forgiving. Likewise, among adults, we expect more from a person of stature than from an ordinary fellow. A blemish on a coarse garment is not nearly as bad as it is on a piece of fine material. A stain on a pair of denims is not only acceptable, it may be desirable. In fact, some people pay a premium for prestained jeans. Put the same stain on a silk tie, and it’s simply unwearable.
Moshe was like the finest silk, and therefore even the smallest, subtle hint of sin was considered a serious breach of conduct, and the repercussions were severe.
I recall reading in one of Rabbi Dr. A. J. Twersky’s early books an exposition on the well-known Yiddish expression es past nisht — it is unbecoming. When he was a child and his father would admonish him for doing the wrong thing, he would say es past nisht, that is, for you, this sort of behavior is unbecoming. Not only did such a rebuke not shatter the child’s self-image, it reinforced it. A wise father was telling his child, “You are special; you are important; for someone like you, this sort of conduct is unbecoming.” There are behavior patterns that are not necessarily criminal or sinful. Yet for someone from an esteemed family background, es past nisht, it is unbecoming. This was the kind of criticism that could actually build a child’s self-esteem. How beautiful, that even in chastisement one can find validation and praise.
As I write these lines, I think of the chuppah ceremony when I officiate at a marriage. After reading the ketubah in the original Aramaic, I usually read an abstract in English. There in the text one finds the antiquated expression, “even as it beseemeth a Jewish husband to do.” The groom’s obligations to his bride are reflected in that old, quaint turn of phrase reminding him that he will be expected to conduct himself appropriately — as it beseems a Jewish husband to do. Yes, we Jews do expect more from our husbands. There is a historical ethic and a sacred tradition we are all held to. No matter what the rest of the world may get up to, for a Jewish husband, es past nisht, it may be unbecoming.
Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived. For him, the standard could be no higher. Luckily for us mere mortals, we will not be held to that exalted benchmark. But we will be held to our own standard. The standard of Jews who were called upon by G‑d to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Rabbi Yossy Goldman was born in Brooklyn and was sent in 1976 by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as an emissary to serve the Jewish community of Johannesburg, South Africa. He is Senior Rabbi of the Sydenham Shul and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. His sefer “From Where I Stand: Life Messages from the Weekly Torah Reading” was published by Ktav and is available at Jewish book shops or online at www.ktav.com.