Life presents all of us with obstacles. As the philosopher Nietzsche put it: There will always be rocks in the road ahead of us. They will be stumbling blocks or skipping stones – it depends on how we use them.
I got to thinking of the rocky road of life when speaking to some of our elders this week. I am in awe of their life stories; the unimaginable Holocaust horrors that so many experienced; the fearful ordeals so many others went through.
Everyone has a story, a tale to tell, and I have yet to encounter an individual who has not had to face trials and challenges in their lifetime. Some of us are more fortunate than others, but none of us are free of difficult choices and stressful situations.
There are the external boulders or hurdles, and the internal blocks and impediments. Sometimes it’s the rocks and stones of ‘outrageous fortune’ and, at other times, it’s the rocks in our head that are hardest to shift.
Last week’s dramatic and enigmatic Torah reading reminds us of the stumbling blocks and the skipping stones. I am referring to the famous episode in which Moses is instructed by God to speak to a rock in order to produce water for his thirsty people in the Sinai desert. He hits the rock instead of speaking to it.
This failure of Moses creates a storm of commentary, but I want to highlight just two lessons we can learn from it: Firstly, that even the greatest of people face challenges and experience failure, and secondly that from adversity we can grow stronger. Moses understandably succumbed to the unrelenting pressures of leading a generation of slaves (with a slave mentality) to a freedom of mind and movement. Secondly, he may have failed but he also succeeded. He, after all, did draw water out of a rock! I find this inspiring and comforting. We may hit our heads against a rock, make awful mistakes. But even in our failure we can help feed and nurture others, we can give them sweet waters, even as we may experience the bitter. It’s a paradox, but a stumbling block is also sometimes a stepping stone…
At our talk, one of our seniors reminded me of the Talmudic story about stones and water. It tells how Rabbi Akiva began his illustrious career: Akiva was a shepherd, a labourer, ignorant of Torah knowledge. At age 40, he apparently didn’t even know how to read the aleph-beit. One day, while sitting by a brook, Akiva noticed a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a drip, but it was constant – drop after drop after drop. Akiva observed: A hole had been carved out by that steady drip of water. He wondered how that could be and concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in solid rock, how much more so can words of Torah – which can be as hard as iron – make an indelible impression on my heart.
And what an impression it made – Rabbi Akiva becomes one of the storied heroes of Judaism – he turns a stumbling block into a flowing river of inspiration and edification. The beautiful words of WH Auden come to mind: “In the deserts of the heart, Let the healing fountain start…”
The Psalmist sings about honey gushing from a rock. There’s a lovely message of resilience and hope in that image which I hope will help sweeten your week.