This week’s reading (in Israel) is Chukat, Numbers 19.1 through 22.1. Among the various points in this week’s Parashat, one of the saddest things is the consequence of Moshe and Aaron’s disobedience to the expressed word of Adonai. In the third Aliyah (reading) in response to the people’s cry for water, Moshe and Aaron are told to approach a specific rock and speak to it and water would flow (Numbers 20.7-9)[i]. Simple, walk to a specific place, say the commanded words and the desired results would occur. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Maybe it was because after forty years, Moshe was just tired of the continual complaining or maybe he and Aaron were just so distraught over the death of their sister, Miriam (Numbers 20.1-2), we may never know. Whatever the cause, something snapped and instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe first rebuked the people and then he struck the rock (Numbers 20.10-11). Then came the words that had to be some of the hardest that Moshe and Aaron ever heard;
Because you did not trust in Me so as to esteem Me as holy in the eyes of Bnei-Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land that I have given to them. – Numbers 20.12
After all the struggles and pain, the pleading on behalf of the people even arguing with the LORD, now in a moment of uncontrolled anger, Moshe allowed his mouth to get the better of him and in anger not trust or faith, struck the rock. We are not told why the water came forth even though Moshe acted wrongly. Quite possibly it was because Adonai remained faithful even when his servant was not.
The Haftarah is from Judges 11.1-33, the account of Jephthah the Gileadite, a man of valor (cp. 1 Samuel 16.18), the 8th judge raised up by the LORD to guard, protect and lead Israel. Though the entire story is not told in this reading, the point of connection with our Parashat is seen in Jephthah’s vow to the LORD.
Then Jephthah vowed a vow to Adonai and said, “If You will indeed give the children of Ammon into my hand, then it will be that whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return safely from the children of Ammon, it will be Adonai’s, and I will offer it up as a burnt offering” (Judges 11.30-31).
As the narrative continues, we read that Jephthah’s daughter is the first to come out of his house. The daughter’s faithfulness is the one spark of light in this story, “My father, you have opened your mouth to Adonai,” she said to him. “Do to me what proceeded from your mouth … Then at the end of two months she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow he had made (Judges 11.36 & 39). As with Moshe and Aaron, Jephthah exceeded the command and direction of the LORD and stepped, making an oath that was not required. Jephthah had already been empowered by the Ruach Adonai (the Spirit of the LORD) for not only battle but for victory; there was no need for the oath or the resulting sacrifice.
The debate over whether Jephthah actually carried out his vow or whether the vow was even a valid vow has never been fully settled. In Parashat Shoftim the LORD states plainly that “[t]here must not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire…” (Deuteronomy 18.10). We will not join the cacophony of voices in trying to settle this dilemma. What is important in both readings is that our words and our actions can have dire consequences, especially if we step outside the specific word or will of Adonai in a given situation. Yeshua taught his disciples, “[b]ut let your word ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’—anything more than this is from the evil one” (Matthew 5.37). Continuing in this vein, Ya’acov wrote, “[b]ut above all, my dear brothers and sisters, do not swear—either by heaven, or by the earth, or by any other oath. But let your “yes” be “yes,” and your “no,” be “no”—so that you may not fall under judgment” (James 5.12).
Last week we read Yeshua’s warning, ““…from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. The good man from his good treasury brings forth good, and the evil man from his evil treasury brings forth evil. But I tell you that on the Day of Judgment, men will give account for every careless word they speak. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned,” (Matthew 12.34-37). The reality of “men will give account for every careless word they speak” was painfully realized as Jephthah’s daughter exited his home just as Moshe’s anger with the people led to his unfaithful act of striking the rock.
There are two passages from Mishlei (Proverbs) which I believe should be considered concerning our words and attitudes. First, in Mishlei 17.27 the author states that the “[o]ne with knowledge restrains his words, and a discerning person stays calm.” Another translation states “he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” A cool, calm, level head may well have allowed Moshe’s entrance into the Land of Promise instead of just glancing over it from afar. Second, in 18.21 the author cautions his readers that “[d]eath and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”[ii] As in Deuteronomy, when Moshe encouraged Bnei Israel to choose life not death, here the author here reminds us that life and death is in our tongue, in the words we speak. Not only do our words have the potential to harm others, they have the potential to harm ourselves as well.
In closing, and possibly with the words from Mishlei in mind, these two verses from the Apostolic Writings encourage the readers to be cautious of the words of their mouth. First, from Kefa, “…get rid of all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all lashon ha-ra (derogatory speech)” (1 Peter 2.1). Then from Shaul to the Colossians, “[l]et your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, to know how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4.6).
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible.
[ii] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.