It was Nietzsche who said: 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.
It was Moses who so often found himself between a rock and a hard place, the obdurate stoney heart of a pharaoh, the obstinate and wilful new nation with necks as stiff as stones…
There are two critical moments in his life when he literally comes across a rock. The first occasion is when the nation, newly liberated from Egypt, found themselves in the wilderness without water. God tells Moses to take a stick and hit the rock and water gushes out for the thirsty people.
The second occasion is shortly before the people of Israel are about to enter the promised land. Once again the people needed and wanted water. They complained loudly saying why have you brought us into this wilderness, to this wretched place where there is not even water to drink.
Moses is confused and frightened. God tells him to take the stick and speak to the boulder and water would appear. He addresses the people saying to them: Listen you rebels; shall we get water for you out of this rock? He lifts his hand, takes his rod and hits the rock twice -and water flowed. Then God said to him, you didn’t do what I told you to do -you will not lead these people into the promised land of Israel.
It’s a perplexing and confounding passage – after all Moses was just reacting, somewhat impulsively, but also predictably as he was following a precedent. He could have just said to God – be patient with me, all geologists have their faults…
What was really going on here? I’d like to suggest that the Torah is teaching us profound and powerful lessons about living, love and leadership and the four A’s that help us navigate our way on the rocky road through the wilderness of life.
The four A’s are: attitude, anger, agility and appreciation.
You don’t have to be a genius to know that attitude shapes your reality. Negative emotions distort perceptions. Life is constantly throwing up obstacles in our way, but it is the rocks in our head that so often block our ability to conquer the boulders and hurdles without.
English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who was only too familiar with his own dark thoughts put it this way:
O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. [You can] hold them cheap [You] who have ne’er hung there.
Aaron Beck and his disciple Martin Seligman developed cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as a way of countering so many of the negative messages we give ourselves, the learned helplessness, the sense that I’m a failure, that things will never change, the overemphasis on the negatives, the tendency to blame others for our predicament, the catastrophising or expecting the worst no matter what.
Moses understandably succumbed to the negative in the situation, worn out by 40 years of wandering around in the desert, his peers dying around him including the recent loss of his beloved sister. In his grief, he loses his cool and calm head and his energetic and upbeat approach. He forgets what he knows better than anybody else, that it’s your attitude and not your aptitude that determines your altitude.
This is of course one of the great gifts that Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and therapist left us with – his insight that what would often make the difference between life and death in the concentration camps was a life affirming attitude. He would quote Nietzsche that he who has a ‘why’ to live, can live with almost any ‘how’.
At this dangerous and difficult time in human history the urgency of an attitude of hope and cultivation of faith are all the more important. We are a people who have kept faith alive even as we faced fear and loss, trials and tribulations. With cool heads, warm hearts and the spirit of our tradition we can find a way to help ourselves and our wounded world through these times.
As the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky tells us, he was sustained in prison particularly by the verse from Psalm 23: Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me.
It was more than just a failure of nerve for the embattled leader, Moses, it was also a loss of equilibrium. A loss of his cool and calm head in a moment of blazing anger. That’s the second A, anger. He not only lashes out at the people angrily calling them rebels, but in his rage he also hits the rock instead of speaking to it and strikes it not once, but twice…Judaism is not a passive or Quietism religion – it doesn’t deny the reality and even necessity of anger. As the wise King Solomon says, there is a time together up stones but there is also a time to throw stones, there is a time for restraint and there is a time for anger.
Repressed anger doesn’t disappear, it just goes underground. As my wise wife Caron puts it, denied anger festers, feeds on itself and when ignited becomes like a wild and dangerous bush fire. She says anger, is one of our evolutionary and adaptive mechanisms – it alerts us to things that aren’t just right. It’s a call to look within, to find the source of our whipped up and stormy emotions. Then once processed, if the situation does justify a strong and angry response, we need to express it in a measured, appropriate and considered way. This is the difference between uncontrollable, violent rage and acceptable and necessary anger. Sometimes we do need to respond immediately with anger, for example to gross injustice, abuse, unacceptable behaviour, unfairness or ugliness. But it’s an anger we are fully aware of and also in control of.
In an angry age like ours where everybody seems to be outraged about something, this is a timely reminder that fury is a destructive force, it can destroy and undermine both the perpetrator and the victim. It can undermine the best of leaders, the wisest of heads, the kindest of souls. In this rage age the Torah’s point is profound: When you are angry you should attempt to speak, not hit or burst out in rage, but beware of those extreme and unwise comments. Remember the wise words of Maimonides: a person is praised if they are angry for the right reasons, with the right people in the right way at the right time for the right length of time…
Geologists apparently have a saying that rocks remember. This brings me to the third A – Agility. If rocks remember, surely Moses wasn’t so wrong in remembering the previous occasion God told him to hit the rock. He was acting on precedent even though he was not following instructions. Under pressure people do the predictable.
There was however, one salient difference between the two episodes: a matter of 40 years. The first time he was leading people who, a few days previously, had been slaves. Now he was leading their children, a generation who had not experienced slavery. This was the born free generation. Slaves understand that with a command comes a brutal stick. Free men and women don’t respond to force and coercion but to words and persuasion. They need leaders who speak not strike. Moses, the man who led a slave generation for 40 years was not the man to lead free people across Jordan, that’s what agility is about – the capacity to adapt and change in the face of change.
Responses right in one age may be wrong in the next. In these tumultuous and furiously fast moving times, we need to be fiendishly flexible, curiously creative and amazingly adaptive. This applies to us as human beings and it certainly applies to Jews and Judaism today. Yes, anti-Semitism is on the rise but we are not victims or powerless in the face of it and we do not stand alone in opposing it. Going backwards, retreating into our own self-created ghettos or sterile silos is not going to secure the kind of Judaism I want for the future. Our Chareidi brothers and sisters can make their choices and help preserve some of the treasures we may neglect and they do it extremely well. But as Jonathan Sacks reminded us – Judaism was never meant to be for Jews alone. The world has changed and Jews must change the way they have always changed, going back to the first principles and asking what is it that Judaism does best, what messages does it have for humanity and how can we contribute to the conversation of humanity, sharing ideas with others, letting others share this with us.
It’s all about attitude, agility and anger management, but there’s also one more A – appreciation. Moses may have failed but he also succeeded. He, after all, drew water out of a rock. I find something incredibly comforting and inspiring in this. We may hit our head 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 so beautifully expressed in Naomi Shemer’s song on the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet. A stumbling block is also sometimes a stepping stone…. That’s what appreciation is about, responding with gratitude to the good affirming and positive things that are right here right now in our lives. That’s why we savour the sweetness of honey and apples at our family tables, that’s why we say the prayer Modeh Ani every morning, we thank before we think (Sacks).
That’s why we say a special blessing שהחיינו on Rosh Hashanah. Thank you God for this superb day for this occasion you have given us, that we are back here together as a community, that we have lived through and survived these last few horrendous years.
Baruch Atah Hashem Elokeinu Melech HaOlam Sheh- hecheyanu Ve kiyemanu Ve hegeyanu Lazman Hazeh!! We bless You God who has sustained us, nurtured us, and brought us to this marvellous time!!