A Soft Approach

The difficulties of raising children to live a Torah lifestyle are enormous. So too, influencing Jews who are distant from Torah is fraught with the danger of pushing them farther away. The Kalever Rebbe describes the approach that will be successful.

5 min

Kalever Rebbe

Posted on 10.07.22

Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. (Bamidbar 20:8) 

This week’s parsha describes a well-known incident. Following the passing of Miriam, the well that had accompanied the yidden during their time in the desert ceased to exist. Thirsty, they approached Moshe and raised their concerns. Hashem commanded Moshe to “…speak to the rock…so that it will give forth its water.” 

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe struck it with his staff as the Torah tells us, Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank (Bamidbar 20:11). As a result, Moshe would not be allowed to lead the Jewish people into Eretz Yisroel, the Land of Israel. 

The commentators ask two obvious questions: Why did Moshe deviate from Hashem’s commandment by striking the rock? Secondly, why did this warrant such a harsh punishment?  


The Old Way 
There are people who believe that harsh reprimand and stern discipline is the only effective approach to education, to helping someone who is distant from Torah and mitzvot to rectify their ways. When they confront yidden whose behaviors are not aligned with Torah values, they respond with anger and severity. They think that they are motivated by their own yirat shemyaim, and they believe that this methodology will motivate these people to become closer to Hashem and His Torah. 

The truth is that many such individuals simply have not dealt with their own anger issues. They have failed to refine their own character by eliminating that anger that comes so naturally for them. 

Such people will inevitably fail to influence these yidden to change. Their rebuke will be rejected. They will push yidden who are struggling with their own spirituality even further away. Anger is simply a false tactic in educating others as Chazal taught in Pirkei Avot (2:5), “…a short-tempered person cannot teach…”  


The New Way 
Nowadays we need to be extremely meticulous when we offer discipline and guidance. We must ensure that our tactics draw those who are distant close. Our words of guidance must be spoken in a tone and style that can be received by the listener. 

The Pele Yoeitz (in his chapter on Kefiha) explains this with a beautiful analogy. Over the years, medicine has evolved. Treatments have become more nuanced, especially in the areas of medicine that address mental illness. Treatments and medicines that were considered effective ages ago would appear barbaric by today’s standards. So too, with mussar, words of rebuke. The harsh approach that might have worked generations ago is outdated. This generation needs a new form of mussar, a softer, more compassionate approach. 

R’ Shlomo from Radomsk in Tiferet Shlomo (Pirkei Avot 1:6) wrote in the name of the great tsaddikim of his generation, that people must be very careful in these later generations not to reprimand people with harsh rebuke. Rather, you must approach these yidden with warmth and gentleness to awaken their yirat shemyaim

If R’ Shlomo, zt”l, wrote those words describing his era, they are even more applicable in this generation. Children, today, are facing challenges that are unprecedented. Technology and social media have made the bad elements of society and their influence even more accessible. To counter this, it is imperative that teachers and parents approach children with kindness, affection, and understanding. The relationship needs to be founded in a sense of caring and genuine concern for their well-being. You need to educate through modeling and positive reinforcement constantly trying to build the child up. For example, when a child does something wrong, you can guide them by saying, “It is not appropriate for someone as talented, smart, and important as you, to behave in such a manner.”  


A Generational Shift 
This idea can help us understand why Moshe hit the rock and the subsequent punishment. 

R’ Yitzchak from Chernobyl-Loyev, zt”l, explained that Moshe viewed B’nei Yisroel as a stubborn and difficult people. He knew that they would complain and express doubt in their circumstances, as the parsha describes (Bamidbar 20:3): The people quarreled with Moshe, and they said, “If only we had died with the death of our brothers before the Lord.” 

B’nei Yisroel were behaving inappropriately, and Moshe believed that they needed more than words to rectify their ways. Therefore, he hit the rock to demonstrate that words alone would not be enough. They would need something harsher; a rebuke that was as severe as a physical blow to a rock with a staff. 

In this act, Moshe revealed that he was no longer fit to lead B’nei Yisroel into Eretz Yisroel. This method of leadership, of guiding the Jewish people, was appropriate for the generation that left Mitzrayim, Egypt. As slaves, they were accustomed to this form of discipline and worse; they had been reprimanded by their taskmasters with physical abuse. That generation could relate to the message Moshe was sending when he hit the rock. They would have understood. It would have been effective. 

However, that generation had passed, and this was a new generation of Jews born free. This form of discipline was completely foreign to them. They simply couldn’t accept this method of discipline. Moshe could no longer relate to his flock. Therefore, the yidden needed a new leader to guide them on their journey and conquest of Eretz Yisroel. A leader whose patience and compassion would help them remain steadfast in their commitment to Hashem and His Torah. 

Therefore, Hashem selected Yehoshua to lead the Jewish people during this next phase, someone whose humility was also widely known (see Targum Yonaton Bamidbar 13:16). This was a leader who could relate to the people of the new generation, who knew how to guide and discipline them in a way that would be received and understood. 

The times had changed, and in this moment, Moshe demonstrated that he was no longer the appropriate leader for this new generation.  


A Sheep’s Shepherd 
Perhaps we can expound further the holy words of the Rebbe from Chernobyl-Loyev, zt”l. 

Moshe was originally chosen to lead the Jewish people because he was merciful. The Midrash (Shemot Rabba 2:2) relates that Moshe worked for his father-in-law, Yitro, as a shepherd. While tending to the flock, one of the sheep ran away. Moshe chased after it and finally caught up to the sheep by a watering hole. The sheep was about to drink when Moshe said, “You ran away because you were thirsty!? And now, you have become tired.” He lifted the sheep and placed it on his shoulders and carried it back to the flock. Hashem said, “You were this merciful with the flock of a human being, by your life, you will be the shepherd for the Jewish people.” 

Moshe was merciful to a sheep. His approach to guiding those around him was to be merciful if they listened like a sheep adheres to the direction of its shepherd. 

However, Moshe believed that if they failed to listen, if they refused to be guided and they became disobedient, you need to punish them, and force them into submission.  


Use Your Words 
Hashem taught a critical lesson to Moshe when he commanded him to “speak to the rock”. This was a new generation that needed a kinder, gentler approach. They needed to be “spoken” to. And, even if words fail to inspire them, they seem to be ignoring you like a rock, you must continue to speak to them as often as it takes, with patience and compassion. If you become angry or frustrated and resort back to the harsh disciple of the previous generation, they will reject your guidance. You will push them further away, delaying their ability to change. 

It was difficult for Moshe to adapt to this new generation, to change his approach to leadership, to education. Therefore, Hashem selected Yehoshua ben Nun as the new leader, someone who would lead with an abundance of patience even when the yidden would seem apathetic to his guidance. And he was successful in helping yidden to become close to Hashem with love and kindness, as Chazal taught in Tana D’bei Eliyahu (Eliyahu Rabba chapter 17) that during the times of Yehoshua ben Nun the Jews accepted their avodat Hashem lovingly, as it says, “And if it displeases you to serve the Lord… And the nation answered and said, “God forbid that we should forsake the Lord, to serve other gods…” (Yehoshua 24:15-16) 


The Kalever Rebbe is the seventh Rebbe of the Kaalov Chasidic dynasty, begun by his ancestor who was born to his previously childless parents after receiving a blessing from the Baal Shem Tov zy”a, and later learned under the Maggid of Mezeritch zt”l. The Rebbe has been involved in outreach for more than 30 years, and writes weekly emails on understanding current issues through the Torah. You can sign up at www.kaalov.org  

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