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 Torah reading, is punished and denied entrance to the Promised Land for the seemingly minor infraction of hitting a rock instead of speaking to it?
The people are clamoring for water in the wilderness. G‑d tells Moses 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 Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it, but in the end, the miracle happens anyway, and the people’s thirst is quenched.
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’s a sin? Even if, as the commentaries point out, 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 tolerant. Likewise, among adults, from a person of stature, we expect more than from an ordinary fellow.
A stain on a pair of denims is not only acceptable but 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.
Moses was like the finest silk and, therefore, even the smallest, subtle hint of sin was considered a serious breach of conduct, and so the repercussions were severe.
I recall reading in one of the late Rabbi Dr. A.J. Twersky’s early books, an exposition of 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. Not only did such a rebuke not shatter the child’s self-image, it 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 inappropriate. 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 chuppah ceremony when I officiate at a marriage. After reading the ketubah in the original Aramaic, I usually read an abstract in English. There in the text one sometimes 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, es past nit.
Moses 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.”
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.