columnTorah Portion

Talk to the rock!

Effective communication is the language of love.

"Moses Strikes the Rock" from Dalziels' Bible Gallery, circa 1865–1881. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons.
"Moses Strikes the Rock" from Dalziels' Bible Gallery, circa 1865–1881. Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

What’s the best way to reach people today?

I have a friend who is a senior partner at a big advertising agency and he confirms that people are so flooded by advertising messages that they have created natural censors to block out the huge volumes of unsolicited information. It’s simply too much. We are bombarded by companies trying to sell us things and we have become particularly resistant to all these different forms of communication.

This is why, today, direct marketing seems to be the most effective means of getting our messages across.

When I was starting my rabbinic career, I was very involved in adult education programs. We put together many excellent series of lectures, panel discussions and extensive learning programs. Together with talented graphic designers, we created some outstanding marketing materials that were so successful they were copied by numerous organizations around the world.

But as proud as I was of my work, I had to admit that one of my rabbinic colleagues who simply worked the phones was able to attract many students without any sophisticated public relations materials. A personal phone call from the rabbi was more effective than all the full-color brochures and posters.

These days, we are so bombarded by media—social and antisocial—that people have simply stopped reading. Some have described ours as an “ADD. generation.” So, a phone call works much better than an ad in the paper, an email or a WhatsApp message.

This week in our Torah portion Chukat, we read about Moses hitting the rock to extract water in the wilderness. Miraculously, the water flows and the people’s thirst is quenched. But God had instructed Moshe to speak to the rock, not to strike it. For this seemingly minor infraction, the great leader was denied entry to his beloved Promised Land. While it certainly seems to be a very harsh punishment for the seemingly minor misdemeanor of hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, there is a very powerful message here.

That even to a rock you must speak!

Even to a stubborn, rock-like, hard-headed Jew, the way to reach him is not to hit him over the head but to speak to him and to talk nicely and gently.

As a pulpit rabbi, I can confirm that once upon a time “fire and brimstone” sermons may have worked, but today they are clearly not the way to go. A generation ago, people came to shul to hear a powerful sermon, or a great chazan or choir. Today, the most important element in people’s choice of where they will go to shul is the social dynamic. Are they comfortable there? Are their friends there?

Maybe that’s why those controversial “Kiddush Clubs” or “Haftorah Clubs” that occur in many shuls today are so popular. I mean, there’s going to be a proper Kiddush with food and drink straight after the service is over. You can’t wait half an hour? While there may well be some serious alcoholics at these gatherings, I believe the main driving force is the social side: friends. We are so starving for real friends, not just Facebook friends, that we crave the social interaction these little gatherings provide.  

Similarly, what’s the best way to teach people today? Education is no different. Do teachers still hand out punishments like they did in our youth? Do they force misbehaving students to write 3,000 times “I will not throw spitballs at the teacher in class”? Surely, the dunce cap and standing in the corner are now deemed not only obsolete but detrimental and damaging to our children. Of course, there will be times when punishments or “consequences” are put into effect, but by and large, sitting down and talking to a student privately, softly and sensitively will elicit far better results than those old simplistic “punishments.”

This helps us better understand why God told Moses to strike the rock for the first time, as described in Exodus 17:6. According to the commentaries, this is what led him to become confused and to believe that perhaps he was meant to do it again, as he does in Chukat.

At one point, the older generation was still open and receptive to hard talk. That’s why Moses hit the rock to get water the first time. But after much time had passed, the new generation needed a different approach. For them, striking the rock didn’t work. Now Moses needed to speak to the rock.

We have just commemorated the 30th yahrtzeit of my saintly mentor and teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of righteous memory. No one understood this idea better than the Rebbe. Even 75 years ago! The post-Holocaust generation of American Jews, “Born in the USA,” could not be reprimanded and rebuked as was done back in Europe. The way to reach and teach Jews today is through Ahavat Yisrael (“love of Israel”) and unconditional love.

The Rebbe was the global pioneer of outreach or, in Hebrew, kiruv. Even when many rabbis argued against it back in the 1950s and 1960s, he insisted that his students and followers reach out with unconditional love to every Jew regardless of their religiosity, observance or non-observance. And it worked.

Kiruv means to draw near, to bring closer, to be soft and warm, and to engage with others through love, not fear.

Even if people are obstinate, hard-headed and stubborn as a rock, hitting them over the head doesn’t work. Speak to them nicely and you will be successful.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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