Our toddler has begun repeating everything that we say — and I do mean everything. This new habit provides plenty of opportunities for hilarity. “Wow, that’s amazing,” I say to my wife about an anecdote she’s sharing. “Amazing!” a little voice repeats behind me. The other day I said the word soapdish in front of him, and he’s been saying it over and over again ever since, cracking up every time.
I guess soapdish is kind of a funny word.
All of this has made me hyper-aware of what I say in front of our little one. Obviously, there’s the matter of swearing; I swear like a sailor on leave and have often joked that our kiddo’s first word would be something unrepeatable. I’ve exchanged the s -word for ‘sheesh,’ or even ‘shish-kabob’ which makes me feel like a huge dork but is more acceptable. I try not to say anything else too harsh — opting for oops instead of an f-bomb when I drop a toy or stub my toe. It isn’t easy. Basically, motherhood is accomplishing what my own mother has been trying to accomplish for many decades. It’s taming my tongue.
There’s another side to this as well, though, and that has to do with the offhand comments we make, the ones we don’t notice, but that is surprisingly potent. Things like “I shouldn’t have eaten that,” or “That’s just how men are,” or “I was just being stupid.” All of these are phrases that are acceptable in society; we say them without thinking, and everyone knows not to take them too seriously. Lately, I’m thinking that this is, at best, a misconception.
Our kids hear everything we say, and they think that we know things about the world. They count on us, their grown-ups, to make sense of things. If we say that the person who cut us off in traffic is exhibiting male behavior, that’s what they believe. If we say that we shouldn’t have eaten that slice of chocolate cake, they understand that eating can result in shame and regret. If we say that making a mistake is evidence of stupidity, well, it must be true.
All of this was on my mind as I began to read this week’s parsha, Chukat, which relates how, after Miriam dies, the Israelites find themselves without water in the desert. I have actually had the occasion to be leading a group through the desert and run out of water — it’s not good. As the containers ran dry, my co-leader and I had to make some tough decisions on what we would do. In the end, he ran to the next place where he could fill the containers, refilled them, and ran back to where I waited, in relative shade, with the group. We didn’t tell them how dangerous the situation had become, and I’m sure that, if we had, an uproar would have erupted.
Moses and Aaron didn’t have the luxury we had. They weren’t able to run ahead and find a well. According to Jewish tradition, a well of fresh water followed Miriam through the desert. If this is true, the Israelites were sure to have noticed that the well ran dry as soon as their prophetess was gone.
“The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord!” the Israelites scream in Numbers 20, verses 4-5, “Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?”
Moses had no solace on the horizon. All he can do is try to keep the people calm and to ask God for help. God, for his part, does something very strange. “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community,” God tells Moses in Numbers 20, verse 8. “and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Talk to the rock, says God. The rock will give you water.
The Israelites are panicking, thirsty and desperate and blaming Moses for everything — and God wants him to calmly command a rock to give water?
Like so many things on this desert journey, it doesn’t go well. Moses loses his patience, or doesn’t have faith, or is overwhelmed by the community rising up before him. Whatever the cause, he raises his rod and strikes the rock twice. Water pours forth, and the Israelites are pacified. God, however, is not pleased. “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people,” says God, “therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”
Moses doesn’t get to go into the land, despite all he is done. This single action is enough to condemn him entirely. You can get close, but you don’t ever get to see the milk and honey flowing freely, don’t get to sit beneath the fig and the vine, don’t get to cross the Jordan river into the promised land.
I’ve always wondered about this passage. Isn’t this a little harsh? After all, this is Moses we’re talking about. He led the Israelites out of Egypt, he proved his faith in God plenty of times — from the burning bush onwards, on plenty of occasions. Doesn’t he deserve a little leeway here?
Lately, though, I’m rethinking my previous position. Moses did get the water flowing, after all, but he did it by violence — he struck the rock — instead of by peacefully speaking to the rock. It’s about faith, then, but it’s also about the message that this sends the Israelites. Namely, that the end does not justify the means. The violence is not acceptable, even if it gets the job done.
When we are leaders, even when the ones we lead are impatient or frustrating, the messages we send matter. Even (especially) the non-verbal ones. This message was potent enough, and dangerous enough, that maybe God is right. Moses forfeited his right to lead the Israelites into a new era. As parents, we’re trying to guide our kiddos into a wise and measured adulthood, and I guess that means that we need to try to be as wise and measured as we can right now. Even if it’s hard, the consequences are critical enough that it’s worth thinking twice and three times before speaking.