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Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Torah constantly puts us between a rock and a hard place . . . literally.

Take Ha'azinu, for example. A few years ago I first noticed something interesting about rocks while reading Ha'azinu, Moses' farewell poem. It is a poignant piece of literature, because it is impossible to read it without knowing that it is given in the shadow of his death. Even worse than his death, Moses is to be left behind as the children of Israel - the same people who have plagued his life through forty years in the desert - get to enter the Promised Land. Ha'azinu's gracious song of praise to God is a remarkable act under the circumstances.

Those circumstances become even more ironic, for hidden within that song, Moses seems to be twitting God. Moses refers to God as the "Rock." The parsha begins with Moses extolling God, saying, "The Rock! - His deeds are perfect, Yea, all His ways are just." (Deuteronomy 32:4) Again, this seems bittersweet, but when in context it seems mostly bitter.

Recall that the reason Moses could not enter the Promised Land was because of a rock. When the people cried for water at Kadesh, God told Moses to take his rod and before the eyes of the community order the rock to give water. So Moses took the rod as he was commanded, went to the rock in front of the community and struck it to bring forth water. God immediately told Moses that because he had not trusted enough to affirm God's sanctity, Moses cannot enter the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:6-13). Fair enough. God had said to order the rock and did not say to hit the rock. Moses did not follow orders. Others who had not followed orders precisely were struck dead immediately. This is a relatively mild punishment.

And yet Moses seems to have been caught in a trap and had good reason to be confused. Before when the children of Israel cried for water at Massah and Meribah, God had also told Moses to take his rod and then had said to get water from the rock by striking it. (Exodus 17:5-6) It was certainly reasonable for Moses to have assumed that the rule for getting water from a rock was to strike the rock. And if was only supposed to speak to the rock at Kadesh, then why did God order him to take the rod? Was this some trick God was playing with potentially disastrous consequences for Moses? Some deeds of perfection and ways of justice!

So when considered in this context, it seems ironic that of all terms Moses could use as a term of praise for God in Ha'azinu, he uses rock. Unfortunately, the problem only exists in the English translation. In Hebrew the Rock of Ha'azinu is a "tzur" and the rock of Kadesh and Massah / Meribah is a "selah." Problem solved. Moses meant no ironic twitting. Although the differences between a tzur and a selah are probably so slight that maybe the irony was intended. A tzur is a flinty hard rock, and so would it seem was this God.

Moses' various experiences with rocks have lessons for us - even when the rock is one whose deeds are perfect and ways are just. The way life unfolds means we often have our work cut out for us in seeing why those deeds are perfect and those ways are just.

And rocks also mean work for us. Isaiah charges us to remove the rocks (eben) from the highways so the people can pass through into the land.. (Isaiah 62:10) And on Yom Kippur, we are reminded again that we are to clear away obstacles that stand in the way of the people's return to the land. (Isaiah 57:14). In short, in our progress through life, we like Moses must be mindful of the rocks that stand in our way. Indeed, we must be mindful not only for ourselves but also for the others for whom we are to clear away all obstacles.

But if we have this work to do, where are we to look for these rocks? Go ask Pharaoh, the man whose heart was hardened, turned into rock. Of all the rocks that block our way, the most difficult to remove, the ones that most trouble us, that are most in our way are those that block up the passageways are in our hearts. They strangle life and love, understanding and warmth. Indeed, as Isaiah says, it is our lifelong task to clear away the stones, to keep the highway clear: "Prepare, prepare the road - yes, clear a thoroughfare, remove the stumbling block from my people's way."
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah