One great teacher of the last century learned an important lesson from this week’s Torah portion. Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira of Poland looked at the passage in which Miriam dies in one verse and in the very next verse the Israelite community is without water. This sequence of events perplexed our ancient sages, who created a midrash to explain why a drought might have followed on the heels of Miriam’s death. When Miriam was alive, the midrash teaches, God bestowed a well upon the Israelite community; the well was given b’z’chutah, in appreciation for all Miriam did for her people and in recognition of her steadfast faith in God. The well followed the Israelites on their travels through the wilderness, but as soon as Miriam died the well dried up. Which is why in this week’s Torah portion, when the community discovered that there was no water, there was great chaos and terrified protests. Moses, in anger at the community’s grumbling, struck a rock, hoping to quell the dissent among his people.
Many commentators have taken a negative view of Moses’ enraged act of striking the rock, but Rabbi Shapira offers a different view. Rabbi Shapira looks at Miriam and looks at Moses and sees two people at different stages on their faith journey. Miriam merited the well, Rabbi Shapira suggests, because her spiritual achievements were self-generated. Miriam had within herself a wellspring of hope and a yearning for God. Everyone, including her brother Moses, looked up to Miriam, and learned from her gentle leadership and her loving-kindness. When Miriam died, teaches Rabbi Shapira, the yearning for God died within the community, too. Everyone was lost – thirsting for water from Miriam’s well, and hungering for faith from Miriam’s soul.
Moses, for whatever reason, out of anger at his people, or out of confusion over the drought, or out of grief for having just lost his sister, experiences a red explosion of rage. He strikes out violently, hitting the rock. In that moment of destruction and fury, Moses transgresses. Here is the genius of Rabbi Shapira’s teaching. “When Miriam died,” Rabbi Shapira writes, “the yearning for God was no longer there, so Moses hit the rock, and generated his own yearning for teshuvah, his own need for repentance,” which brought on his own desire to return to God (“Esh Kodesh,” p.188). Rabbi Shapira teaches that Moses was not like Miriam. Moses was like most of us, and he could not generate from within himself a wellspring of hope. Instead, Moses committed a terrible offense and lashed out. Afterward, Moses realized his wrongdoing and sought repentance. Without that moment of sinfulness, Moses would never have found his way back on the path of faith.
The destructive act of hitting the rock forced Moses to find the strength to change his life. In Judaism, human beings are almost never seen as lost causes, because we are always able to turn in acts of tshuvah, of repentance, away from behaviors that cause pain, and toward behaviors that spread goodness. Rabbi Shapira offers us a startling insight into the Jewish notion of sin. Often, when we behave inappropriately or harmfully, we are blind to our real motivations. Like Moses, we subconsciously desire to make changes in our lives. Beneath the awful behavior, we yearn for faith; beneath the awful behavior, we crave a deeper sense of connection with others.
We can see this dynamic in human dramas small and large. On a small scale, when we pick fights with our loved ones over household chores or minor worries, are we not really crying out to our loved ones for affection, for attention, for justice? On a larger scale, how many of us know people who have spiraled down the ladder of self-destruction, sabotaging everything in their lives, only to realize that they were really seeking a rebirth, a return, a replenishing of their hope?
Rabbi Shapira’s understanding of Moses’ sin does not undo the damage Moses caused. Our teacher is not instructing us to pretend that destructive behaviors are harmless. We really do wound others when we behave cruelly and, even worse, often innocent bystanders also get hurt. What Rabbi Shapira offers us is a way out of the torpor of chaos and confusion caused by our wrongdoings. If we can acknowledge that, like Moses, underneath our destructive behaviors we are seeking to fulfill a wholesome need, then we are more likely to experience remorse and a desire for reconciliation. Moreover, if we can see mean-spirited acts in this light, we might be better able to forgive others who have hurt us, and recognize that they, too, are seeking wholeness.
This is a particularly poignant lesson to learn from Rabbi Kalonymous Kalman Shapira. Rabbi Shapira was a chassidic master known as the Piaseczna rebbe. Piaseczna was a small town in Poland that was destroyed during World War II; Piaseczna’s Jews were transported to the Warsaw Ghetto. In the last days of the uprising, Rabbi Shapira buried a manuscript that contained his Shabbat teachings on Torah; our lesson today comes from that collection. Soon afterward, Rabbi Shapira was deported to Travniki concentration camp, where he was murdered within months of his arrival.
It is a miracle that the Piaseczna rebbe’s wisdom has survived. It is a still small voice of faith calling out from the flames of genocidal fire. Like Miriam before him, the Piaseczna rebbe was blessed with a wellspring of hope that continues to inspire us today. If, in that time and place, he could see within the sinful acts the craving for redemption, perhaps, today, we can see within our own lives how our worst behaviors reveal a pathway to personal transformation and divine service.