Friday, July 15, 2016

Speak Softly and Leave the Stick Behind - D'var Torah for Parashat Chukat - July 15, 2016

So, the Israelites were complaining -AGAIN!  They cried out to Moses, "Why have you brought the Eternal's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die here?  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!" So Moses and Aaron sought God's guidance.  
   God told Moses:  “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." 
  God instructed Moses to order the rock to produce water, with no specifics on how to do so. From God’s perspective, and based on God’s response to Moses afterwards, it seems that all Moses was required to do was to order the rock in a soft voice so that it would provide water.  Yet, the people's complaints grew increasingly louder, and Moses’ frustration got the better of him. Instead of speaking softly, he took the road he was told to bring before the people and struck the rock. Water did come out, quenching the thirst of the people, but God told Moses and Aaron that they would not lead the Israelites into the promised land. 
    For some reason, in reflecting on this Torah reading this year, I thought about Theodore Roosevelt's citation of the proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick.”   Rough Rider Teddy's first use of that adage was in a letter to a friend in 1900.  The more popular instance when he quoted that proverb was in a speech he delivered at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 1901, four days before the assassination of President William McKinley.  Roosevelt was sworn in as President of the United States 12 days after he gave that famous speech.   
    So just what did Vice President Roosevelt say about voice and stick 115 years ago?   Here is an excerpt from his remarks that day: 
   "A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick – you will go far.’ If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power.  Let us make it evident that we intend to do justice. Then let us make it equally evident that we will not tolerate injustice being done us in return. Let us further make it evident that we use no words which we are not prepared to back up with deeds, and that while our speech is always moderate, we are ready and willing to make it good. Such an attitude will be the surest possible guarantee of that self-respecting peace, the attainment of which is and must ever be the prime aim of a self-governing people."
No boasting, no bluster, no arrogance, no loose-tongued denunciation.  Speak courteously and respectfully, but be prepared to back up your words with action.   Only this will guarantee a self-respecting peace. 
   Each of you can apply this passage from Roosevelt's speech to current events in whatever way you choose.    
    As for me, I see a connection between this proverb and the episode in question in the Torah reading.  
    The people knew that Moses and Aaron had God's power behind them, as well as the track record that had kept them alive and provided for their needs up to that point.  And yet, their response was not "Thank you for what you have done all along this journey!" But, instead, "What have you done for me lately?"   A rampant amnesia gripped the people as they trekked across the desert towards their destination.  
   In fact, Moses was carrying a big stick - not the staff in his hand, but the power of God and, even more important, the courage, confidence and fortitude grounded, in his own faith, that God's support was enough for him and for the people.   Moses probably assumed that, when God told him to take his rod and order to rock to yield water, that he needed to use that trusty staff in accomplishing this little miracle. From God’s response, Moses may have known, also, that he could spontaneously create a spring of water from the terrain in front of him simply by speaking to the rock.  The rod would have been a symbol of his power and leadership, and using his words would have been enough for the wondrous deed he was about to perform.  A softly spoken command would have de-escalated the situation from frenzy to calm, from near chaos to order and eventual contentment.   
However, a leader who is subjected to complaint after complaint after complaint sometimes will just lose it.  Patience, the measured response, the quiet voice all disappear.   That was where Moses was.  He had unmatched power behind him, but he forgot that his power - his BIG STICK - was his humility and his steadfast leadership that didn't need to give in to voices of strife and accusation.  So he grabbed the staff and struck the rock, likely with a visibly violent ZETZ.   And for that, he had a lesson to learn about his own patience which he needed to teach to the next leader of the people as well as to the members of the new generation to come.   
   So we can remember, too, in our work with others, and in our leadership, that our power lies in our abilities, our knowledge, and our commitment to see a task to its fulfillment and conclusion.   It is not with a loud proclamation that we will finish our work.  It is in quiet action and the demonstration that the completion of our mission will have a positive effect on our community. 
    So let us consider, now and always, to which voices we will incline our ears, and to which actions we will direct our eyes.   May we speak softly and recognize the power and fortitude that we have that can lead us to our own destination.  So may we do - and let us say amen. 

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