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Gentleness

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Dear Rabbi,

I have a close friend whom I truly love. He has many beautiful qualities and virtues. Yet, at the same time he has certain blind spots and blockages in fundamental areas, which have a dramatic impact on his life and on his relationships, including with me. When it comes to these areas he is maddening – like a hard-headed stone, impossible to break through no matter what I say or do. He just doesn’t “get it.”

Can you please suggest ways that can help me get through to this dear person in my life when he seems so impenetrable?

M.

Dear M.

I always loathe advising someone about a third party whom I have not met and whose particulars I am not familiar with. Besides, there are no generalities and generic formulas when it comes to human beings. Every person is another story, every soul has his or her own unique issues, which must be addressed sensitively case by case.

Another factor that needs to be considered is your role in reaching your friend. What is your motivation to do so? Is it healthy or perhaps you may be crossing inappropriate boundaries? Perhaps you are too close to your friend, and you may not be the right person to challenge him. Even if someone is blocked – and who amongst us is not at times blocked? – we may not always have a right to “intrude” into a person’s psyche and try to “force” open doors, without the proper invitation. And even when we do, great care must be taken whether and how to challenge blind spots, with proper sensitivity to the reasons and causes for these blockages.

Above all, we must always ensure that the objective of freeing a person of his or her impediments is for that person’s benefit.

Obviously, all these qualifications do not preclude the possibility that people can just be stubborn in their own limited perspective and if we care, we should do everything in our power to challenge that person and help unlock their closed mind or heart. Sometimes, when trust and love are in place, we do need to be strong and aggressive in unblocking obstructions.

After stating these disclaimers, and assuming that there is a productive goal in opening up a blocked person, allow me to say that there are some guiding principles that can be applied to every given situation, with due consideration to each individual’s particular issues.

Indeed, an episode in this week’s Torah portion (Chukat) illuminates for us the difficulty, the challenge and the proper method to be employed when wanting to pierce a… “stone.”

During the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness the people had a fresh supply of water from “Miriam’s well.” But after Miriam’s passing, the water stopped flowing. Once “the people had no water…they assembled against Moses and Aaron,” and quarrelled with Moses, saying,

“If only we had died with the death of our brothers before G-d. Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?  Why have you taken us out of Egypt to bring us to this bad place; it is not a place for seeds, or for fig trees, grapevines or pomegranate trees, and there is no water to drink.”

G-d then told Moses to

“take the staff and assemble the congregation…and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock, and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.”

But then Moses, the great Moses, made a fatal mistake. “Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice. An abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.”

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses struck it. Resultantly,

“G-d said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Since you did not have faith in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.’”

This episode was forever coined “mei merivah,” the waters of dispute.

What is the meaning behind this story? Why did Moses alter G-d’s command and instead of speaking he struck the rock? Indeed, forty years earlier G-d actually instructed Moses to draw water by striking the rock, which would explain why Moses did not hesitate to strike the rock now as well. But why then did G-d actually change His instructions?

The biggest question of all is this: Drawing water from a rock – whether through speaking to it or striking it – is equally miraculous. So what true difference is there whether Moses spoke to the rock or struck it? Both are acts of faith. Why then did Moses’ alteration demonstrate a lack of faith in G-d?!

And why would this seemingly subtle change prevent Moses and Aaron from entering the Promised Land?! Is seems like a disproportionate penalty for a relatively minor alteration?

This story teaches us a vital lesson in communication and education, and in the respect we have for the human spirit.

As they were concluding their arduous journey and about to enter the Promised Land G-d wanted to convey a critical message in the ultimate way to deal with the rock-like resistance that we would face in all generations to come.

The rock represents the hard coat of armor that we so often surround ourselves with for protection. We all have various defense mechanisms that we develop to protect our own vulnerability. Especially people who have been hurt or abused will hide behind layers of smokescreens. A continuous onslaught of broken promises and disappointments, betrayals and boundary breaches, especially at a young, formative age, erodes trust.

What is the ultimate way to pierce a rock; to produce water from a hard stone?

The answer lies in how we look at the “rock.” If we see the hard armor as the natural state of the human being, then the only way in is through aggressive means: Break the shell and enter. Strike the rock.

But if we recognize that the pure soul within each of us retains its majesty, no matter what harsh experiences happen to us in life, then ultimately the soul can be reached through speaking to it, with sincerity and love. Even the hardest “rock” contains a soft center, a moist core that may lay dormant, but remains alive.

Initially, striking the rock may produce some results. Indeed, at times it is necessary to use force to break down resistance and develop behavioral discipline. But the aggressive approach alone will only produce temporary results. It may force the armored psyche to open up a bit, but it will not last and it will not truly open up the person. The psyche within will remain open only if it feels safe and nurtured.

Observe a child. Unjaded, an innocent young one will be receptive to those that love that child. But after repeated broken promises and disillusionments, the child will begin closing up. Sulking in silence, locking him or herself into a secret corner. As the years pass the “shrouds” harden and it becomes increasingly difficult to penetrate the tough exterior.

Speaking to the individual, gently, with words from the heart – will ultimately enter the heart, and affect true change.

This distinction between an aggressive strike and a subtle word is not a trivial one. It is the difference between life and death: Do we see a person, even a very blocked one, as an impenetrable “rock?” Do we see a person whose trust has been lost and betrayed as irreparable “damaged goods?” Or does every soul retain its purity, even as it may lay hidden and silent beneath layers of armor?

G-d was telling Moses – speak to the stone, do not strike it. Have confidence that you can get through to the person. You may not see immediate results, you may not feel that you are getting through. But have faith. Believe in the person’s soul. Know that within the hardened shell lies a gentle soul, waiting to be released, waiting to be loved, waiting to be nurtured.

Witness those special parents that never give up on a seemingly unreachable child; those loving ones that continue to speak to their beloved even as s/he lies in a comatose state (G-d forbid); those indomitable spirits that refuse to succumb to suffering.

Moses obviously knew all this. Yet, he felt that the people in the wilderness, due to their incessant complaining and quarreling with G-d, still needed to learn the lesson through a tough approach – striking the rock. G-d, however, was telling him that the strong approach was needed at the outset of the journey, 40 years ago. Now as you enter the Promised Land and need to establish a long-term, sustainable system, you must learn the art of “speaking to the rock.”

As long as you do not know how to speak to the “rock,” you cannot lead the people into the Promised Land.

You may be tempted to just want to wring a resistant person’s neck. Often, a person’s blocks can indeed be maddening. You want to yell at them: “Open your … eyes! Can’t you see that you just are not where it’s at?” This can be particularly exasperating when the person is convinced, absolutely convinced, that “he gets it.”

Despite these feelings, we must always remember that beneath the rocky surface lays a gentle soul, “a still, soft voice,” that can be reached through gentleness.

Sometimes we need to apply “shock treatment” to shake up a person. But this needs to be done with discretion and sensitivity. Ultimately, even the strong approach needs to be coupled with “speaking” to the rock from the heart.

Trust – is the single most important ingredient in any true communication; it creates the fertile ground for all developing growth.

Speaking to a “hard rock” instead of striking it can be the difference between entering or not entering the Promised Land.

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3 Responses to “Gentleness”

  1. Adele Mischel

    The discernment of choosing to strike the rock or not to strike the rock becomes the issue. Gentleness, is always the choice of Torah teaching and the best of principle teaching, however when MUST we strike the rock, when that also becomes Torah teaching.

    The illusion when The Golden Calf becomes a source of worship, when little children are killed, when “lies” become a “truth”, then striking the rock becomes the greater good.

    Tikun Olom is our path forward, when responsibility towards one another becomes our choice, when love in action, is taken, then GENTLENESSS becomes our path forward. It is then that we live in the light .

  2. sue

    I thoroughly enjoyed Rabbi Jacobson’s article entitled ‘Gentleness’ and his interpretation of why Moshe should have spoken to the rock. I found the Rabbi’s explanations as to how gentleness can free someone and remove the blocks. I tried it out on my husband with a wonderful response. Thank you Rabbi Jacobson for your beautiful wisdom.

  3. I dont know how many people would infer conduct towards a rock to have
    implications for treatment towards people. Not many, I think. Treatment of
    animals might carry such inferences but not treatment of the inanimate.

    Allow me to suggest another interpretation. Striking the rock might imply that the rock contained water to be released by striking. Speaking to the rock, on the other hand, could suggest a transformative process whereby the rock, itself, becomes water. Today, we know that all things are made of the same subatomic constituents. That rock can become water evokes the underlying unity of all things and, while it is true that the scientific basis of that unity is part of contemporary knowledge, the principle of unity (which also implies the infinite) was taught by Abraham and is the underlying principle of Judaism.

    Once matter is conquered and all material things become interchangeable,
    we will become as indifferent to all things material, regardless of how rare
    they are today, is we are, now, to sand or seawater. Psychologically and
    spiritually unable to covet anything physical just as, today, it would be
    impossible for us to covet seawater, our only remaining option will be to
    covet the metaphysical. Thus the elimination of free choice and the universal attachment to the spiritual would fulfill the prophecy of a light unto the nations.

    This may seem a far cry from speaking to the rock but failing to see that the rock could become water might, very well, be the failure of faith that plagues us to this very day. The fundamental aspect of this failure could easily explain the severity of Moses punishment given the lack of faith that prevails until this day and is most evident in our total failure to perform the Mitzvah of BChol Lvavcha the fulfillment of which would unfold our infinite potential given that we are made in G-ds image.

    Please give this some thought. The implications are spectacular as is our potential, were we to take it seriously.

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