By Rabbi Yisroel Shusterman, Dean, Cheder Chabad of Monsey
A life sentence for jaywalking? Twenty years for chewing gum in public? Singapore notwithstanding, surely that's over the top!
Well, was it so different for Moses, who, in this week’s Torah portion, Chukas, (Bamidbor [Numbers] 19:1-22:1), is punished and denied entrance to the Promised Land for the seemingly minor infraction of hitting a rock instead of speaking to it?
The people are clamoring for water in the wilderness. G-d tells Moses to speak to a certain rock (he was meant to ask nicely) and promises that, miraculously, water will flow from the rock. Commentary enlightens us as to the behind-the-scenes reasons for Moses striking the rock instead of speaking to it, but in the end the miracle happens anyway and the people's thirst is quenched.
If your average rabbi today would make a rock produce water, even if the rock needed more than mere gentle persuasion, surely it would be hailed as the greatest miracle of the century and the rabbi would win the Nobel Prize for chemistry. But for Moses it's a sin? Even if (as the Torah points out) it would have been a greater sanctification of the Divine had he only spoken to the rock, still, for such a minor infraction, such a severe penalty?
The answer, we are told, is that responsibility is commensurate with the individual. If a child messes up, it is entirely forgivable. For an adult who should know better, we are less likely to be as forgiving. Likewise, among adults, from a person of stature we expect more than from an ordinary fellow.
A blemish on a coarse garment is not nearly as bad as it is on a piece of fine material. A stain on a pair of denims is not only acceptable, it is absolutely desirable. In fact, some people pay a premium for pre-stained jeans. Put the same stain on a silk tie and it's simply unwearable.
Moses was like the finest silk and, therefore, even the smallest, subtle hint of sin was considered a serious breach of conduct and the repercussions were severe.
In one of Rabbi Dr. A. J. Twersky's early books, there is an exposition of the well-known Yiddish expression, "es past nit" -- "it is unbecoming." He writes that when he was a child and his father would admonish him for doing the something wrong, he would say "es past nit," i.e. for you, this sort of behavior is unbecoming. Not only did such a rebuke not shatter the child's self image, it reinforced it. A wise father was telling his child, "You are special, you are important; for someone like you this sort of conduct is unbecoming." There are behavior patterns that are not necessarily criminal or sinful. Yet for someone from an esteemed family background, es past nit, it is unbecoming. This was the kind of criticism that could actually build a child's self esteem.
How beautiful those even in chastisement one can find validation and praise.
Moses was the greatest prophet that ever lived. For him, the standard could be no higher. Luckily for us mere mortals, we will not be held to that exalted benchmark. But we will be held to our own standard. The standard of Jews who were called upon by G-d to be "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
(Excerpts from Chabad.org - by Rabbi Yossy Goldman)