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Leadership And The Necessity Of Being Like Water (Chukat – 7/1/17)

Rabbi Neil SchumanWhat do the Wicked Witch of the West and Moshe, the greatest teacher of the Jewish People, have in common?
They share one critical weakness: They don’t mix well with water.

While water simply melted the Wicked Witch, Moshe’s relationship with water is more complex. As an infant, Moshe was destined to be drowned in water, along with countless other Israelite newborns by Pharaoh’s decree: “Every son who is born you shall cast into the Nile…” (Exodus 1:22). That same water though, saved Moshe when his mother hid him in a tiny basket among the reeds of the Nile. Indeed, the Torah records that Moshe’s very name means “drawn out from the water” to remind him that he was only alive because of someone else’s kindness.

As the plagues begin, Moshe can’t be the one to effect the first plague, for the Nile had protected him; how could he strike it and turn it into blood? Leading the Jewish people in flight later from Pharaoh’s army, Moshe is criticized by G-d for being slow to raise his arms and split the sea.
Mere days after that very miracle, protests erupt from his flock over the scarceness and bitterness of the water in the wilderness.

And now, in this week’s parsha the Well of the Rock, the miraculous source of water that kept the Jewish People alive in the desert for forty years stopped giving forth its bounty. Moshe is hard pressed to provide water for the Jewish People, initiating the final chapter of his lifelong aqueous struggle.

G-d commands Moshe to take his staff and, along with Aharon, assemble the congregation. Before all, Moshe will speak to a rock from which water will miraculously flow.

Moshe gets distracted though by the people’s pushiness and strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Abundant water gushes forth. Yet G-d’s will was not fulfilled; Moshe receives the devastating news that he will no longer be the leader of the Jewish people nor will he merit to enter the land of Israel.

What did Moshe do that was so wrong? This is among the top questions debated by the sages. Yet our question is what’s Moshe’s issue with water?

Water is unique in that it has no shape of its own. It flows blindly, conforming easily to its surroundings. Clay, metal, wood, plastic all take upon themselves an “identity”, but water has no intrinsic identity.

In contrast, Moshe was one of the most steadfast human beings who ever lived. In his life, Moshe never conformed to anything: not to the riches of Egyptian royalty, nor to the depression of exile and persecution; not even to the expected concessions of those desiring to live a normal family life.
He acts and reacts based upon his intellect but rarely concedes; flexibility was not his forte.

He was told to speak to the rock, but when the people confused him with their complaints, he reverted to hitting it. Moshe was a strong leader, but even strong leaders need to adjust to new times, new generations and their different needs.

One of Bruce Lee’s more famous quotes (of change fighting styles) is about being like water:

“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle, you put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

Unfortunately, Moshe didn’t adjust and he crashed.
Bruce Lee concludes: “All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”

As we welcome the new officers for MHJC (and I thank you for taking on the synagogue’s challenges in addition to your own personal and family responsibilities), we need to realize, that 2017 is not like 2016, and certainly not like 1970. We need to learn to adjust to new needs of our young and old, our experienced members and our new members.

We need to take the “water” approach, to be flexible and think outside of the box. On the other hand, we also have to preserve the sacred traditions and values of our past; therefore, your job is not an easy one. But if done properly, you take your places among the leaders of our people, keeping our faith and purpose in the world going strong.

May you see G-d’s blessing in all your work,
Shabbat Shalom

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
244 Manetto Hill Road, Plainview, NY 11803
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