Parshat Chukat: The persuasion of goodness

The first chapters of the book of Genesis tell us about the power of speech; first, as the means to create by God, and later by Adam when he called his wife “the mother of all the living”, and named the animals in the Garden of Eden. From this we learn that we speak words in other to identify and define our relation with others and our circumstances.

We realize that language in general and speech in particular reflect what we think and feel as the outcome of what we believe. In this context, “believing” defines who we are. Every time God “spoke” He expressed what we are destined to believe, think, feel, say and do, to make sense to being created by Him as His “image and likeness”.

Most cultures categorize language and speech as a way to establish an ethical frame for their use, for the words we say can generate diverse responses, reactions, effects or consequences. The Torah refers to this matter extensively and repeatedly in its approach to blessings and curses, as the results of the choices we make through our free will.

In this regard, ultimately not words but actions speak about who we are. We are referring here particularly about the power of speech. Our Sages say that the words we speak are like thrown arrows that never return to us after we throw them.

This is another lesson we can apply to our moment to moment approach to life, as an ethical warning to how we interact with others. After this preamble, let’s bring one of the quintessential lessons we learn from this portion of the Torah.

“(…) and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it gives forth its water; and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock, so you shall give the congregation and their cattle drink.” (Numbers 20:8)

In front of the entire congregation of the Jewish people, God asked Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock, but Moses rather told them that hitting was the proper way. As we read later, the consequence of this cost Moses his yearned and desired entrance to the Promised Land.

Besides learning about the outcome of Moses’ disobeying God’s will in public, this episode invites us to reflect on the differences between speaking and hitting. Our Sages compare the rock to the children of Israel, as their “stiffed-necked” reluctance to engage in the change of consciousness required to permanently bond with the Creator of all; and the rock as the immutable materialistic approach to life that certainly can transform its hardness into a stream of nourishment to support the abundance of goodness, also represented by the “cattle” mentioned in the verse.

The episode tells us that either Moses’ speaking or hitting the rock, the result would have been the same. However, God’s commandment was clear as the one we must accept when we learn that the persuasion of speech is better than the use of force, particularly when we are chosen to live by goodness and not by evil.

Some of our Sages indicate that one of the qualities of the Jewish messiah is his power of persuasion to invite the nations to recognize and embrace goodness as the ethical ruling principle destined to direct all aspects, facets and expressions of life. They also say that in the same way that goodness is the pursued end, it too must be the means to fulfill all the Jewish prophecies stated in the Hebrew Bible.

In this awareness, the lesson of speaking instead of hitting is that the oral expression of goodness manifests through the persuasion of goodness itself, meaning that its expression must be also goodness. It is achieved in its own way, which does not impose to anyone or anything. Goodness is either embraced or rejected, but never imposed.

This reminds us the saying about the horse. We can bring it to the water, but we can’t force it to drink. Our reflection on all this takes us to the other side we mentioned earlier. If Moses’ hitting the rock caused the same effect of simply speaking to it, why not hitting if we consider this proper?

We rather be and do as our Creator wants us to, by using the persuasion of goodness to reveal goodness from where or whom is hidden, like the rock from which water was brought forth.

About the Author
Ariel Ben Avraham was born in Colombia (1958) from a family with Sephardic ancestry, descendants of Jews forced to convert to Christianity. Studied Cultural Anthropology in Bogota. He lived 20 years in Chicago working as a radio and television producer and writer. Moved to Israel in 2004, converted to Orthodox Judaism in 2006 in Jerusalem. He lived in Safed for four years studying the Chassidic tradition and currently lives in Haifa.
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