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Talking to Stones: Words, Actions and Faith

mascettiBy Yaakov Mascetti*

A desert is an arduous context, wherein water is not the sole thing that lacks, but also the basic necessities for the normal functioning of a social collective. Within the dryness of this context, the People of Israel are required, in the Book of Numbers, to undergo the transformation from “a chaotic mass of clueless slaves” to “people.” This process is not easy, of course, and is fraught with dangers – Israel falls, over and over again, failing in critical moments of its history. The chaotic mass, though, needs to become a collective – the question is, how does one transform chaos into order. Are awe, force and brutal violence the sole means, as in the nasty state of nature described by Hobbes in his Leviathan? Or can we envision a scenario in which disorderly things, chaotic realities, can be fashioned into an orderly shape and a disharmonic harmony only by means of words? Can we allow for some space of personal individualism and uniqueness while fostering spaces of sanctity and Divine presence? And finally, are these two really in total contradiction?

I wish to focus on the moment in which Moses and Aaron lose their right to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land, presenting it not as an incomprehensible moment of exclusion and punishment, but as a clear lesson taught to the People of Israel regarding the role of words and actions:

(Num. 20:1-5) “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the LORD! Why have you brought the LORD’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”

The Israelites depend upon Miriam for water – she is one who finds well in the desert, and the moment she dies, water becomes a problem. The immediate consequence is that the people feel threatened and approach Moses with their quarrelsome statements – social chaos breaks out again, and an immediate response to the disorder is necessary.

(Num. 20: 6-9) “Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them, and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, 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.’ Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He had commanded him .

Moses is commanded to take his rod and then approach the rock and talk to it – in response to the words uttered by Moses (Gd does not specify what Moses actually has to say), the rock would then give water in abundance to the thirsty and chaotic ‘rabble.’ What the text describes here is a miracle, where the verbal fashions the material, where the sounds of words and the semantics they convey, perform a change on the natural course of things. What actually happens, alas, is quite different – Moses angrily responds to the quarrelsome mob, and rather than using words in order to help them work their way out of terror and uncertainty, her strikes them with their chiding tone:

(Num. 20:10-13) “Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock.’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them’ Those are the Waters of Meribah—meaning that the Israelites quarreled with the LORD—through which He affirmed His sanctity.”

When faced with the difficulty of a moment, and vis-à-vis the chaotic disruption of a disorderly rebellion, the leader decides (maybe irrationally) to speak not to the rock, as G-d commands him to, but to the people – and in speaking, he uses harsh words, expressing anger, frustration, and a chiding tone. Rather than acknowledging their difficulty, their thirst, the fear for their lives, the sense of terrorized uncertainty, Moses uses his words like daggers, calling them “you rebels” and expressing a sense of skepticism regarding his capacity to “get water for you out of this rock.” Having spoken to the messy inertness of the rebellious mob, Moses then hits the rock twice and performs the miracle – and as a great number of commentators has noticed, the miracle is performed not as God conceived it, “before their very eyes” and by virtue of words, but through the violent use of actions. Moses strikes the rock not once, but twice.

At this point I would like to quote the Maharal of Prague, who addresses this incident in his commentary Gur Aryeh:

“Many have been confused and challenged by the sin [of Moses and Aaron,]… and you must know that their sin, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity’ was performed in hitting the rock twice, for this signaled their relinquishing of faith, for they acted out of anger, and whoever performs the will of God in the heat of his anger… does not act out of faith. For wherever there is anger, there is no fear of or faith in God.

The Maharal dwells on a rather important issue – the performance of Divine will here, and elsewhere too, is in stark contradiction with the will and individual yearnings of he who is called to perform the Divine commandment. In order for there to be an accomplished realization of the Divine commandment, the individual has to, so to speak, devoid himself of his own will and act as a means. It is for this reason, we might speculate, that Moses yells in anger at the people and asks, in a rather rhetorical manner “shall we get water for you out of this rock?” – are we going to be able to do this at all, here, in front of you rebels, on your behalf? Moses places his own anger, his own conception of order and social harmony before the Divine conception, and thus substitutes the act for the words, the hitting of the rock for the verbal interaction with the inert materiality of the thing. The Maharal stresses at this point that Moses’ sin blinds him and prevents him from seeing the wonder of what Divinely ordained words can do to created objects – filled with rage, Moses shows the path to a religiosity inflamed by terror, and anger, and which expresses itself through extreme acts, through acts of violent beating performed in the name of God’s will.

As Rashi points out, speaking to the stone is not merely an act of supernatural wonder – it was supposed to provide the misbelieving mass, in all its terrorized chaotic behavior, with a sign, a token of the correct way to obey God’s word – just like the word of God, reiterated by Moses, makes rocks obey and water come out of them, so the word of God can fashion the consciousness of the single believer and bring him to perform His will.

The Maharal continues:

“And may there be no doubt in you regarding the power of words – for the rock would have heard and obeyed the Divine Word in a miraculous way, just like a human being hears and obeys the Word of God, as it says in verse 8 “and you shall talk to the rock and order it to give water” – God wanted this to be a miraculous moment, a chance for those present to see and feel the performance of Divine will and thus to feel filled by the need to obey his Will. This had to be accomplished by the word, and not by the obligation of actions – and thus, we see that he who hears the word of God and decides to follow it, does so by his own will, happily, and not because of the presence of a threat.

This event provides us, in the Maharal’s version of facts, an antithesis to Sinai, where the people do not have a choice – there they must accept, they are obliged to become part of Divine revelation. Feeling the thirst for presence, the yearning for an understanding of Divine will, the people request water – and water was supposed to come to them out of the rock, our of the inertness of the created thing. Had Moses managed to placate his anger and void himself of his own individual angst, he would have been allowed to enter the Land and lead the people into their Promised home. Faced with popular chaos, with disharmony, with anger and terror, we are called by the Torah to learn the alternative way, that of words, of semantics, of verbal interaction and dialectics – for, we may conclude, even when faced with the adamant certainty of the interlocutor’s rock-like consciousness, words can elicit a response, an acknowledgement, an understanding.

Hitting the rock in anger is certainly the easiest way get the water to come out of the rock – but it is the ONLY way?

*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.