A life sentence for jaywalking? Twenty years for chewing gum in public?! Singapore notwithstanding, surely that’s over the top.
Well, was it so different for Moses, who, in this week’s reading is punished and denied entrance to his beloved Promised Land for the seemingly minor infraction of hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?
The people are clamoring for water in the wilderness. Hashem (God) tells Moshe to speak to a certain rock (he was meant to ask nicely) and promises that, miraculously, water will flow from the rock. Commentary enlightens us as to the behind the scenes reasons for Moshe actually striking the rock, but in the end the miracle happens anyway and the people’s thirst is quenched.
So if your average rabbi today would make a rock produce water, even if the rock needed more than mere gentle persuasion, surely it would be hailed as the greatest miracle of the century and the rabbi would win the Nobel Prize for chemistry! But for Moses it is a problem? Even if it would have been a greater sanctification of the Divine had he only spoken to the rock, still, for such a minor infraction such a severe penalty?
The answer, we are told, is that responsibility is commensurate with the individual. If a child messes up, it is entirely forgivable. For an adult who should know better, we are less likely to be as forgiving. Likewise, among adults, from a person of stature we expect more than from an ordinary fellow.
A blemish on a coarse garment is not nearly as bad as it is on a piece of fine material. A stain on a pair of denims is not only acceptable, it is absolutely desirable. In fact, some people pay a premium for pre-stained jeans. Put the same stain on a silk tie and it’s simply unwearable.
Moshe was like the finest silk and, therefore, even the smallest, subtle hint of sin was considered a serious breach of conduct and the repercussions were severe.
I recall reading in one of Rabbi Dr AJ Twersky’s early books an exposition on the well-known Yiddish expression es past nit – it is unbecoming. When he was a child and his father would admonish him for doing the wrong thing, he would say es past nit, i.e. for you, this sort of behavior is unbecoming. And Rabbi Twerski explained that not only did such a rebuke not shatter the child’s self image, it actually reinforced it. A wise father was telling his child, ‘You are special, you are important, for someone like you; this sort of conduct is unbecoming.’ There are behavior patterns that are not necessarily criminal or sinful. Yet for someone from an esteemed family background, es past nit, it is unbecoming. This was the kind of criticism that could actually build a child’s self esteem.
How beautiful, that even in chastisement one can find validation and praise.
As I write these lines, I think of the Chupah ceremony when I officiate at a marriage. After reading the Ketubah (marriage contract) in the original Aramaic, I usually read an abstract in English. There in the text one finds the antiquated expression, “even as it beseemeth a Jewish husband to do.” The groom’s obligations to his bride are reflected in that old, quaint turn of phrase reminding him that he will be expected to conduct himself appropriately – “as it beseems a Jewish husband to do.” Yes, we Jews do expect more from our husbands. There is a historical ethic and a sacred tradition we are all held to. No matter what the rest of the world may get up to, for a Jewish husband the same deed may be unbecoming, es past nit.
Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived. For him, the standard could be no higher. Luckily for us mere mortals, we will not be held to that exalted benchmark. But we will be held to our own standard. The standard of Jews who were called upon by G-d to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Excerpted from the book From Where I Stand by Rabbi Yossy Goldman. Available at leading Jewish booksellers.