Chukat: Walking Into Darkness


“I don’t get no respect.”

-Rodney Dangerfield

“Rebbe!” the man cried. “Nobody gives me respect! Everybody steps all over me and my opinions!”

—“And who told you to fill the entire space with yourself, so that wherever anyone steps, they step on you?”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The Torah states:

“And Moshe and Aharon gathered the Assembly (the whole of the Jewish people) before the rock and he (Moshe) said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels.’ ” (Numbers 20:10).

Was Moshe correct to call them rebels?

Dvar Torah for Chukat
based on Love Your Neighbor by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz

I don’t think most of us could blame Moses for losing his temper every once in a while. After all, for almost forty years, he’s had to put up with millions of grumpy, ungrateful, temperamental, and complaining people. He’s worried about getting them to where God wants them to go. He’s worried that they’ll complain again resulting in a plague that will kill tens of thousands of them. He’s worried that some upstart will challenge his and Aaron’s authority. And as we see in this week’s Torah portion, he’s got to watch his brother and sister die.

It’s not easy being Moses. No wonder he also gets grumpy from time to time. No wonder he called the Israelites “rebels,” whether they deserved it on that occasion or not. He’s not getting a lot of respect, given that he’s the greatest prophet ever to arise out of Israel.

And we know that based on the incident recorded in Numbers 20, he loses the right to enter the Land alongside Israel, his brothers, his children. But what did he do that was so wrong?

The Dvar Torah quoted by Rabbi Packouz continues:

The Midrash tells us that whoever serves as a leader of the Jewish people must be very careful how he addresses them. According to one opinion — because Moshe said, “Hear now, you rebels,” he was told, “Therefore, you shall not bring the assembly into the Land which I have given them” (Bamidbar 20:12).

The prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah) said to the Almighty, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). For this statement he was severely punished.

The prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) said to the Almighty, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant” (1 Kings 18:10). He was severely punished for his statement.

Rabbi Avuhu and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish were traveling to a certain town. Rabbi Avuhu asked Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, “Why should we go to a place of blasphemers?” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish strongly reprimanded Rabbi Avuhu and told him, “God does not want us to speak evil about the Jewish people.” (Yalkut Shimoni 764)

Moses-Mount-NeboIf you are a Christian, you may be asking yourself what makes the Jewish people so special that they shouldn’t be criticized? After all, God criticized the Israelites on more than one occasion up to and including circumstances that led to the death of thousands. Is this midrash even valid? Why should we pay attention?

Let’s expand the viewpoint a bit. God entrusted Moses with a great responsibility: to lead the Children of Israel to the Promised Land and, failing that, to lead them in the desert for four decades, teaching them God’s commandments and ordinances and preparing the next generation to enter into and conquer the Land.

You can’t do that without respect but more importantly, you can’t do that unless you love and respect those you are leading. This lesson is easily applied to anyone in leadership. It can be applied to a Pastor, a Priest, a boss, a parent, a teacher, a writer, anyone who has an audience that depends on the “leader” for guidance in some fashion. That usually means all of us at one point or another in our lives.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

James 3:1-2 (NRSV)

I don’t know anyone who is perfect in speech, least of all me.

One of the reasons I stopped teaching at my former congregation and subsequently resigned from leadership was because of this verse. I felt that I was not aptly qualified for the position (though no one seemed to complain). I am not formally trained in theology and my conclusions can certainly be wrong. As a blogger exploring my own personal and spiritual “space,” I’m not actually a teacher and all I’m doing really is just chronicling my daily exploration into my relationship with God.

But it’s not as simple as that. If anyone reads what I write and accepts what I write, I have a responsibility to that person. If they can find fault in what I am presenting, I need to look at that comment, take it seriously, and if I see that they are correct, make a correction within me, and then reflect it back out on my blog.

Rabbi Pliskin, as quoted by Rabbi Packouz, shows us several examples of why midrash believes the crime of Moses against the Children of Israel was speaking evil against the Jewish people. He failed to show love and respect to those who God loves and respects. Moses had been called the most humble man in the world (Numbers 12:3) and I believe that is a qualification that great leaders should possess.

It’s kind of hard to find humility on the Internet and particularly in the blogosphere. It’s difficult to always suppress “ego” on the web.

I suppose I could go into specifics about who said what about whom, but what would be the point? Every time I allow myself to enter into one of those conversations, the only one who gets “beaten up” is me, and I did it to myself. No, that’s not quite true. Anyone who is associated with me, even by the thinnest of threads, is also hurt by my behavior. Although it’s not my intent, those who are considered my “friends” or “allies” are dragged down into the mud hole that I created simply because I didn’t ignore temptation. In that way, I continue to provide a disservice to the Messiah and continue to create distance between me and those I care about. My words and opinions are my own. I’m not anyone’s puppet. But I’ll never convince some people of that, so the damage is done anyway.

Winston_Churchill_1941But who cares about all the mud slinging on the Internet? What does it matter if one person has an opinion and I have another? Sadly, a good many people. Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Churchill also said “The British nation is unique in this respect: they are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.”

While criticism doesn’t have to be a lie, for some reason lies, criticisms, and gossip seem to travel farther and faster than truths and complements. I disagree with Churchill that only the British people like to hear bad news, I think most people like to hear bad news, at least if it’s about someone else. Just hop on the Internet and go to several of the major news sites. What sort of news dominates the headlines? Bad news. Why not good news? Good news doesn’t sell, but a good scandal, disaster, or crime story will attract readers in droves.

How many people comment on a good, wholesome, inspirational blog post vs. one that is filled with criticism, controversy, and hostility? A “mean-spirited” blog post is like a big car crash. It’s horrible to look at but it draws people in herds.

Is that what I’m supposed to be “selling” on my blog as a disciple of the Jewish Messiah…bad news? Am I supposed to contribute gossip and “tell tales out of school,” even tangentially when I comment on another’s blog?

The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.

Proverbs 26:22 (KJV)

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:7-8 (NRSV)

If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.

-Thumper, quoting his father
Bambi (1942)

As believers, we have to be particularly mindful of what we’re saying and why. This is especially true of me since I am acutely aware of my own failures because of participating in areas on the web that have done harm to others. By my participation, I’m part of creating that harm. Why am I doing this? Am I seeking my own gratification at the expense of another human being? That’s not my intent and in fact, that’s exactly what I am trying to speak against.

Among Rabbi Pliskin’s numerous and highly useful quotes, there is this:

If your mind is focused on an insignificant incident, it can destroy your happiness if you allow it to. To feel happy, your mind has to be free of pains and misfortunes.

Learn to differentiate between productive thinking about problems as a means of solving them, and counterproductive dwelling on misfortunes which gains nothing positive and destroys your quality of life.

praying-aloneVery often people who appear very angry, or self-righteous, or abusive are actually very hurt. The problem is, it is very difficult to get past “angry” in order to help “hurt.” The first best way we can help someone like that is to find a way to reach the “hurt” part of them and help them learn to heal. I’d like to do that but my efforts almost always backfire so I guess I should stop.

As writers, we have a teaching function, whether we want it or not. Therefore, if the role is upon us, we should carefully choose our topics and our words so that we can be as encouraging and as uplifting as possible while still getting our point across. We should also question the motivation for making our points and verify that we are not deliberately trying to hurt someone else because we believe they hurt us (whether they actually did or not).

The audience or consumers of blogs should also be mindful of the function of writers and teachers as well as our limitations and faults and keep in mind that just because we put something on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s right. It may not be right in terms of being factual and it may not being right in terms of moral correctness (even if it is factual).

Moses may well have been factual when he called the Children of Israel “rebels,” but at least according to midrash, he was absolutely wrong morally in doing so.

Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine any brighter.


In fact, if you have to blow out someone else’s candle for the sake of your own, chances are you are walking in darkness anyway. The sun is setting and it’s getting harder to see. It would be comforting to see the lights of the Shabbos candles as I walk into darkness, but as a writer, disciple, and just one lone human being, I have miles to go before I have any hope of illumination.

Good Shabbos.

103 days…or 32 days. Still making up my mind.

2 thoughts on “Chukat: Walking Into Darkness”

  1. Back in the 80’s, when I finally learned that some TV shows, envrionments, and people, turn me inside out and upside down, I gave myself permission to avoid them. it was remarkable to accept my own personal limitations and greatly improved my stability! 🙂

    Then, when I learned to tell myself “what other people think of me is none of my business” it relieved the need to “correct” them. Of course, I do have to re-remind myself occasionally. 🙂

    Later, in interpersonal relationships when someone would say something false regarding me, my actions, or motivations, I gave myself permission to state the truth respectfully (as I saw it) once *only.* After that, they could either accept my input or not but I bowed out.

    Some folks are hard to take, but they are God’s creation none-the-less. They’re probably needing to remind themselves about that too.

  2. I’m going to publish a few more “some folks are hard to take” blog posts, but I promise that by Monday, my outlook will be much improved (I know, because I already wrote Monday’s meditation.”). 🙂

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