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June 18, 2010 6:24 pm

A Lesson from a Turkish Bath

avatar by Simon Jacobson

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The power of gentlenes s in influencing others is captured in a beautiful story with the Frierdiker Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose liberation we celebrate next week (87 years ago, 12 Tammuz 1927), as well as his  birthday (130 years ago, 1880):
As a young man, the late chassid Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon (brother of the Algemeiner’s Nissan Gordon), once asked the Frierdiker Rebbe how one is supposed to speak with others who may deserve a few strong words. “Should I use harsh words of rebuke?” Rabbi Gordon wondered.

The Rebbe replied: “Since you traveled through Turkey, and everything offers us a lesson in serving G-d, learn from the method used in a Turkish Bath. A person first enters the hot, steamy room. Once he has warmed up, relaxed, absorbed the heat and is perspiring freely, he climbs to a higher bench in the steam room, where it is even hotter due to the rising heat. After he has thoroughly been saturated with the heat, he leaves the room and asks an attendant to smack him with oak leaves…
“This is how we must speak with another, even one who may need some rebuke: First warm him up, with kind and loving words. Then elevate him to a higher plane. And then… he will ask you to smack him…

This message explains the strange episode in this week’s Torah portion (Chukat), which illuminates for us the difficulty, the challenge and the proper method to be employed when wanting to pierce a… “stone.”

During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the people had a fresh supply of water from “Miriam’s well.” But after Miriam’s passing, the water stopped flowing. Once “the people had no water…they assembled against Moses and Aaron,” and quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before G-d. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?  Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.”

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G-d then told Moses to “take the staff and assemble the congregation…and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock, and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.”
But then Moses, the great Moses, made a fatal mistake. “Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice. An abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.”

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck it. Resultantly, “G-d said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Since you did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.’

This episode was forever coined “mei merivah,” the waters of dispute.
What is the meaning behind this story? Why did Moses alter G-d’s command and instead of speaking he struck the rock? Indeed, forty years earlier G-d actually instructed Moses to draw water by striking the rock, which would explain why Moses did not hesitate to strike the rock now as well. But why then did G-d actually change His instructions?

The biggest question of all is this: Drawing water from a rock – whether through speaking to it or striking it – is equally miraculous. So what true difference is there whether Moses spoke to the rock or struck it? Both are acts of faith. Why then did Moses’ alteration demonstrate a lack of faith in G-d?!

And why would this seemingly subtle change prevent Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land?! Is seems like a disproportionate penalty for a relatively minor alteration?

This story teaches us a vital lesson in communication and education, and in the respect we have for the human spirit.
As they were concluding their arduous journey and about to enter the Promised Land G-d wanted to convey a critical message in the ultimate way to deal with the rock-like resistance that we would face in all generations to come.

The rock represents the hard coat of armor that we so often surround ourselves with for protection. We all have various defense mechanisms that we develop to protect our own vulnerability. Especially people who have been hurt or abused will hide behind layers of smokescreens. A continuous onslaught of broken promises and disappointments, betrayals and boundary breaches, especially at a young, formative age, erodes trust.

What is the ultimate way to pierce a rock; to produce water from a hard stone?
The answer lies in how we look at the “rock.” If we see the hard armor as the natural state of the human being, then the only way in is through aggressive means: Break the shell and enter. Strike the rock.

But if we recognize that the pure soul within each of us retains its majesty, no matter what harsh experiences happen to us in life, then ultimately the soul can be reached through speaking to it, with sincerity and love. Even the hardest “rock” contains a soft center, a moist core that may lay dormant, but remains alive.

Initially, striking the rock may produce some results. Indeed, at times it is necessary to use force to break down resistance and develop behavioral discipline. But the aggressive approach alone will only produce temporary results. It may force the armored psyche to open up a bit, but it will not last and it will not truly open up the person. The psyche within will remain open only if it feels safe and nurtured.

Observe a child. Unjaded, an innocent young one will be receptive to those that love that child. But after repeated broken promises and disillusionments, the child will begin closing up. Sulking in silence, locking him or herself into a secret corner. As the years pass the “shrouds” harden and it becomes increasingly difficult to penetrate the tough exterior.

Speaking to the individual, gently, with words from the heart – will ultimately enter the heart, and affect true change.
This distinction between an aggressive strike and a subtle word is not a trivial one. It is the difference between life and death: Do we see a person, even a very blocked one, as an impenetrable “rock?” Do we see a person whose trust has been lost and betrayed as irreparable “damaged goods?” Or does every soul retain its purity, even as it may lay hidden and silent beneath layers of armor?

G-d was telling Moses – speak to the stone, do not strike it. Have confidence that you can get through to the person. You may not see immediate results, you may not feel that you are getting through. But have faith. Believe in the person’s soul. Know that within the hardened shell lies a gentle soul, waiting to be released, waiting to be loved, waiting to be nurtured.

Witness those special parents that never give up on a seemingly unreachable child; those loving ones that continue to speak to their beloved even as s/he lies in a comatose state (G-d forbid); those indomitable spirits that refuse to succumb to suffering.
Moses obviously knew all this. Yet, he felt that the people in the wilderness, due to their incessant complaining and quarreling with G-d, still needed to learn the lesson through a tough approach – striking the rock. G-d, however, was telling him that the strong approach was needed at the outset of the journey, 40 years ago. Now as you enter the Promised Land and need to establish a long-term, sustainable system, you must learn the art of “speaking to the rock”

As long as you do not know how to speak to the “rock,” you cannot lead the people into the Promised Land.
You may be tempted to just want to wring a resistant person’s neck. Often, a person’s blocks can indeed be maddening. You want to yell at them: “Open your … eyes! Can’t you see that you just are not where it’s at?” This can be particularly exasperating when the person is convinced, absolutely convinced, that “he gets it.”

Despite these feelings, we must always remember that beneath the rocky surface lays a gentle soul, “a still, soft voice,” that can be reached through gentleness.

Sometimes we need to apply “shock treatment” on shake up a person. But this needs to be done with discretion and sensitivity. Ultimately, even the strong approach needs to be coupled with “speaking” to the rock from the heart.

Trust – is the single most important ingredient in any true communication; it creates the fertile ground for all developing growth.

Speaking to a “hard rock” instead of striking it can be the difference between entering or not entering the Promised Land.

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