Another week, another tragic terrorist attack. Another disastrous outcome of a conflict between radical Islam and civilization. As we mourn the losses and contemplate the continued carnage resulting from this conflict, we can consider how Torah guides us in the meeting of faith and civilization.
Moshe was deprived of the privilege to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisrael. Life in the desert was idyllic, allowing the Jewish people an initial period where they were removed from the material world, sustained by the heavenly Manna, and free to focus all of their physical and emotional energies on the spiritual world that was visible and tangible to them. Yet ultimately they needed to move on to the Land of Israel, a land that would require conquest and settlement. Arrival in Eretz Yisrael would afford them the opportunity to engage in mitzvos Hatluyos BaAretz, the earthly, agricultural mitzvos, bringing heaven and earth together. Beyond the specific agricultural aspects, building their own country and government in a natural environment would present unique challenges and opportunities to bring the Divine spirit to the material world.
Moshe was deprived of this opportunity on account of his hitting the rock to bring forth water for the Jewish people. While hitting the rock to produce water was appropriate at the beginning of their sojourn in the desert, at this later point it was not. What would work on the threshold of the desert period would not be fitting as they stood ready to cross into Eretz Yisrael. As the transition to the Land of Israel represented the union of the physical and spiritual worlds, we must consider how Moshe’s choice to hit rather than speak to the rock, prevented him from leading the Jewish people through this transition.
Moshe’s challenges with his power of speech are not isolated to this incident, as he described himself initially as an Aral Sfasayim, having blocked lips (Shemos 6:12). Maharal of Prague (Gevuros Hashem, Ch. 28) saw this deficiency as reflecting Moshe’s detachment from physicality. The power of speech results from the blending of the body and soul, the Divine breath of life that G-d infused into the body formed from the dust of the earth that thereby became a Nefesh Chaya, translated by Onkelos as a “speaking spirit” (Bereishis 2:7). The unique power of human speech indeed combines the physical tools that produce sound (Guf), together with the breath of material life (Nefesh) and the intelligence (Neshama, Seichel). It, as such, represents the synthesis of soul and body, heaven and earth (Maharal, Nesiv Halashon Ch. 6).
Moshe, the man of G-d, had limited speech because he did not personally actualize this synthesis, as his soul was not strongly rooted in his body. Moshe is characterized as the Ish HaElokim, whose detachment from the physical world made him uniquely capable of perfectly discerning the word of G-d, and whose engagement with the Divine was so complete that it precluded him from engaging in normal human activities. Moshe’s soul was somewhat detached from his body, and as such he did not have the integration of body and soul that generates the power of speech.
When the Jewish people entered the desert, they were beginning a period of detached and purely heavenly spirituality. In that context, the physical rocks would produce water by physical actions, by the power of the stick. Forty years later, as they prepared to enter Eretz Yisrael, they needed to move towards bringing the physical and the spiritual together. The power of speech represented that synthesis, and was thus to be the new method for bringing forth water from the physical rock. When Moshe failed to do that, it became clear that Moshe as the man of G-d would not be the one to transition the Jewish people from the detached desert to Eretz Yisrael, the meeting place of heaven and earth. Moshe was the perfect leader for the Jewish people during their time in the desert, developing alone with G-d as a people of the spirit, engaged neither in the settling of their own land nor in interaction with civilization at large. But his strength as a man of G-d rendered him less suited to transition the Jewish people into a people of the earth.
One may see this same phenomenon in the relationship our Sages drew between the Bris Milah and our right to both Torah and Eretz Yisrael (Rashi, Bereishis 17:2; TB Brachos 49a). This particular mitzvah is clearly designed to bring the Divine imprint on the earthliest aspect of life. Without the Bris, we experience the Orlah, the barrier that separates the two realms. It has been noted that the term Orlah was used in association with three bodily areas; the foreskin of the Bris, the lips of Moshe, and the hearts of the Jewish people that will bez”H have their barriers removed at the time of our redemption (Devarim 30:6; see Ramban there). The opening of the barrier of the heart was seen in a manner similar to the opening of the other two barriers, allowing the intellectual/spiritual impact of the soul and mind to permeate the entirety of the person (see Maharal’s introduction to Be’er HaGolah).
There is a well-known and enigmatic Talmudic teaching that a baby is taught the entire Torah in utero, until the time comes for it to exit the womb. At that point an angel taps it on the mouth and it forgets all the Torah that it had learned (TB Niddah 30b). This tradition in turn serves as the reason for the Shalom Zachar, a meal that is meant to serve to console the child for its lost Torah (see Turei Zahav YD 265:13).
Maharal (Gevuros Hashem Ch. 28) explained that the angelic tap on the mouth is actually the “final hammer blow” of the formation of the human being, the moment when the soul and body are joined for entry into this world. The Torah is studied and understood “in utero” by the soul, detached as it is from the clouded physical reality. When it is time to be born, for the soul to enter the body, the angel brings together body and soul in creating the power of speech – represented by the tap on the mouth. This union clouds the perspective and understanding of the child, making him forget the Torah he had learned.
Thus, we comfort the child with the Shalom Zachar, an occasion for sharing both food and words of Torah. We demonstrate that through our words of Torah we can turn the dining room table into an altar, and our food into a Divine offering (Avos 3:2). We show the child that physical life is not a contradiction to Torah; that here on earth he will have the opportunity to bring back his precious lost Torah by blending heaven and earth, by unifying body and soul, and by allowing no corner of his life to be deprived of the light of Torah.
Bridging the gap between heaven and earth, between body and soul, and between the religious and secular aspects of our lives, remains one of our most fundamental human and Jewish challenges. Moshe was a unique spiritual personality, who was able to completely transcend this world. We do not transcend the world; we are tasked instead to fill the world with the light of the Torah.
This is far easier said than done, as we tend instead to bifurcate, to live our religious and our secular lives as two separate tracks, with our spirituality somewhat divorced from reality and our worldly lives not reflecting enough of G-d’s word.
Our response to the current distortion of faith presented by radical Islam is to fight this natural trend towards bifurcation and to choose instead to blend heaven and earth using the Torah’s ways of pleasantness; to live lives that are engaged in the development of the world, but to do so with our faith strongly in hand, guiding our path through that world. To do so with the word rather than the staff; with a Shabbos table filled with both delicious foods and words of Torah; with a professional life guided by the highest standards of integrity and pleasantness informed by the Torah; and ultimately – soon in our day – with a society built and developed in Eretz Yisrael by a king of the House of David, ruling and leading us as an ideal society while never leaving go of the Sefer Torah.
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Rabbi Moshe Hauer is the Spiritual Leader of Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion, one of the leading Orthodox congregations in Baltimore, Maryland. His articles and shiurim on a broad array of Torah topics can be found at www.rabbihauer.org. Rabbi Hauer is active in local communal leadership in many areas, with an emphasis on education and on social service organizations serving the Jewish community, including charitable services, hospice and domestic and child sexual abuse prevention. Rabbi Hauer visits Israel frequently and is very involved in Israel-related activities. He is a founding Editor of the online journal “Klal Perspectives” and leads a leadership training program for rabbis and communal leaders. He lectures on a wide variety of topics in Jewish law, Jewish thought, and historical and contemporary issues.