Taking responsibility

June 28, 2012

 In this week’s sedra of Chukkat, the people complain again. There is no water. It is an old complaint and a predictable one. That is what happens in a desert. Moses should have been able to handle it in his stride. He has been through far tougher challenges in his time. Yet suddenly he explodes:
“Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. (Num. 20: 10-11)
It was, so much of an over-reaction, that the commentators had difficulty in deciding which aspect was worst. Some said, it was hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. Some said, it was the use of the word “we.” Moses knew that God would send water: it had nothing to do with Aaron or himself. Others, most famously Maimonides, said that it was the anger evident in the words “Listen now, you rebels.”

The Midrash Tanchuma here describes Moshe’s reaction after he calmed down:

Said Moshe to the Holy One, blessed be He, ” Master of the Universe, I was wrong, but Aaron, what was his sin?”
Therefore the verse (Deut 33:8) praises him (Moshe) saying, ” to the Levi (Moshe) say:
And of Levi he said, Let Your Thummim and Your Urim be with Your holy one, whom You did test at Massah, and with whom You did strive at the waters of Meribah.”

Materialistic man, usually tries to involve and blame others for his mistakes, in order to diminish his responsibility and guilt.
In fact, this was the second sin of man.
We all know what the very first sin was. Yes, eating the forbidden fruit. What was the second sin? Shifting the blame and not taking responsibility. Eve blames the snake. Adam blames Eve. I’m not responsible for my actions. Some external force made me do it.
In the twentieth century two “ologies” – Sociology and Pyschology were developed in order to explain why man is not really responsible for anything he does.
My mother gave me a pink blanket instead of a blue one when I was a baby and that’s why I run down the road bashing old ladies over the head and stealing their pensions. I’m not to blame!

But the Torah and the Mussar movement teach us differently.

Look at Pharoah. Even when he was admitting his guilt (Exodus 9:27) ” HaShem is righteous but I and my people are wicked…..”
As if the people had anything to do with the decision making process. Pharaoh had even refused the advice of his advisors!

So he tries to shift the blame on to the people to lessen his responsibility.

Now contrast this with Moshe’s reaction in this week’s Torah reading. Moshe, the man of God, removes the blame from Aaron his brother and does not involve him in striking the rock. Despite the fact that God includes Aaron in the sin, ” since you (plural) did not believe in Me to sanctify Me ” to include Aaron and punish them jointly, Moshe accepts the sole blame and punishment and argues ” what did Aaron do?!”

The Tanchuma continues, ” Aaron could have said: I didn’t sin. But he was silent, and suppressed his nature, and did not try to defend himself. ( from this we can see that the Tanchuma is of the opinion that he could have mounted a defence).

From here we can take an example from two great leaders and luminaries of our people, Moshe and Aaron.
Moshe tries to remove any responsibility from Aaron, saying that he, Aaron did not say, listen now you rebels; nor did Aaron strike the rock.
And Aaron remaing silent and taking his share of the blame, despite having good reasons to defend himself.

We have seen this before with Aaron. In the verse ( Exodus 15:20) we read: Then Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took the timbrel in her hand……
Rashi comments: the sister of Aaron ( Moshe isn’t mentioned) because he was moser nefesh ( hard to translate – went the whole way, really put himself out for her) when she was in trouble after criticising Moshe and becoming leprous.
What was the mesirut nefesh of Aaron. It was Moshe who prayed for her as it is written: (Numbers 12:13) and Moshe called out to Hashem saying: HaShem please heal her.”

The mesirut nefesh was when Aaron asked Moshe to pray for her.
And Aaron said unto Moses, Alas, my lord, I beseech you, lay not the sin upon US, in which WE have done foolishly, and in which WE have sinned. (Numbers 12:11). He asks in the plural. He includes himself in the sin of speaking against Moshe. But check it out. The verse (12:1) indicates by the verb vatedaber – and SHE spoke, that Aaron was merely standing there. The fact that she alone was punished and not Aaron also bears this out. Nevertheless, when Aaron asks Moshe to pray for her, he characteristically includes himself in the sin. Lay not the sin upon US for WE have done foolishly….

Later, we find this characteristic with King David, peace be upon him.
In 2 Samuel, chapter 24 Verse 17 blames himself that he counted the Jewish people without the use of shekalim, the result of which a plague broke out. David blames himself alone, ” And David said to Hashem when he saw the angel that smote the people, and said, Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly: but these sheep, what have they done? let Your hand, I pray You, be against me, and against my father’s house.

It’s so good to see that our currents leaders, religious and political have taken this fundamental lesson to heart.
Over the Carmel fire. The Prime took no responsibly but blamed his ministers. The ministers blamed each other and their predecessors. The heads of the emergency services blamed each other and the ombudsman ( in reports written over 6 months that destroyed more trees than the fire ) blamed everybody.

When it was found that treife meat was indeed served in the Beit Hanasi ( President’s residence) on Yom haatzmaut, the President blamed the caterers. The caterers blamed the kashrut supervisor. The kashrut supervisor said that he had been duped. Jerusalem has been without a chief rabbi for over 12 years, so nobody in the rabbinate took responsibility. I could go on but the holy Sabbath is approaching.

My teacher the late Chief Rabbi Jakobovits, used to say that we hear a lot nowadays about human rights. But we never hear anything about human responsibilities. There are charters of human rights and courts to impose them but no charters of human responsibilities!

But the Torah tells us. Yes, there are human rights but with them human beings have responsibilities and must on the whole take responsibility for their actions. And despite this not being popular, we Jews are the bearers of this tradition and should be proud to be so.

Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Meir Wise


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