As Jews, we are characterized by the kol Yaakov, the voice of Yaakov that is distinguished by both the spiritual power of prayer and the use of pleasant and persuasive speech (see Rashi to Bereishis 27:21-22.) In our parashah, Moshe deployed both when he sent a message to the king of Edom asking his permission to pass through his territory on the way to the land of Canaan (see Bamidbar 20:14-21, Rashi 18-20). To avoid confrontation, he humbly asked permission of the king, while including in his message specific mention of how Hashem had heard our prayers and responded by redeeming us from Egypt. Moshe’s approach was rejected, as Edom responded within their own legacy of yedei Eisav—the strong hand and the sword—steering the Jewish people away with warnings of battle and a show of force.

It is noteworthy that this story is related immediately following the story of the Mei Merivah, the Waters of Strife. It was then that Moshe—who had been instructed by G-d to speak to the rock—chose to strike it instead (Bamidbar 20:8-11). Apparently, once we of our own volition chose to put aside our power of speech in favor of the tools of force, we rendered the kol Yaakov irrelevant and could no longer rely on its power. Our Sages teach (Rashi Devarim 1:8) that Moshe could potentially have led us into Eretz Yisrael without need for weapons. Perhaps the need for those weapons arose as the direct result of Moshe’s fateful choice to reach for the stick in place of speaking.

That may have been the case as well when we first bore arms as a nation in the war against Amalek. The sequence of events there (Shemos ch. 17) begins with the Jewish people arguing with Moshe over their lack of water. At that time, perhaps related to the fighting words that we had used, Moshe was told by Hashem to bring forth the water with his stick, leading in turn to our being attacked by Eisav’s descendant Amalek. Once attacked, we had no choice but to respond with the sword borne by Yehoshua and his forces, even as Moshe stood atop the mountain ensuring that we did not for even a moment put aside the power of our prayer.

That continues to be our current reality, as we must face the weapons of the enemies that surround us with powerful weapons of our own and with the support of the prayers of Klal Yisrael. Nevertheless, as in the case of Moshe at the Mei Merivah, we must bear in mind the impact our own choices have on this dynamic. In this world filled with violent acts and harsh rhetoric, we can choose as Klal Yisrael to be part of the cure. We can exercise moral leadership in our behavior both internal and external, putting aside whenever possible both violence and harshness and reclaiming Yaakov’s power of refined and faithful speech, using it pleasantly towards humankind and prayerfully towards G-d.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.

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