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Home » Chukat, Education

Lift Up, Don’t Put Down

Submitted by on July 6, 2024 – 11:26 pmNo Comment | 121 views

On occasion, we all need to correct or critique someone. It might be a colleague, employee, sibling, child, or even a spouse. How do you tend to do it? Would you say something like, “You’re doing it all wrong, here watch me,” or “Let me show you a more efficient way to do this?” The former is a put-down, the latter is a lift-up. Do you tend to put people down or lift them up?

My mother-in-law of blessed memory had a wonderful way with words. The first Passover I spent at her home was obviously very new to me. I had to learn all the routines and methods, how things were folded and where they were stored, how food was served, and the order of clean up. I found myself doing everything wrong and felt more than a little foolish. My mother-in-law said, “Lazer has to be shown everything, but he only needs to be shown once.” I can’t tell you how good that made me feel. For the rest of that visit, I was comfortable taking direction. After all, I only needed to hear it once.

Hitting The Rock
This week we read about Moses striking, rather than talking to the rock. The rock still gushed water, but Moses was punished. The Torah doesn’t tell us precisely where Moses went wrong, and the commentaries offer multiple opinions.

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, Nachmanides, argues that Moses was wrong to strike the rock when G-d instructed him to talk to it. Moreover, he struck it twice. This demonstrated that the rock was reluctant to give up its water. Had he talked to the rock, the Jews would have seen that even inanimate rocks obey instructions, how much more so humans.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, Rashi, took another approach. He argued that Moses stumbled when criticizing the nation. When the people demanded water, Moses impatiently cried out, “Listen up you rebels, shall I extract water from this stone?” He should never have spoken of G-d’s children disparagingly. He should not have called them rebels though that is precisely what they were doing.

There are many more opinions, but let’s focus on these. Did Moses err with his actions or with his words?

Lift Up or Put Down
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Bardichev offered a profound insight. He insisted that both are correct. You see, there are two ways to offer critique. The first is to berate those who did wrong, criticize their behavior, and tell them how badly they will be punished. This method relies on shaming people into good behavior. You might get them to change course, but you won’t get them to feel good about themselves.

The other is to speak highly of them. Tell them how precious they are to G-d and how much G-d rejoices over their good behavior. This inspires and moves them in the right direction. The more you persist and insist that they are precious and holy, the more they will believe it. The more they believe it, the more they will want to behave in a way that justifies these compliments.

The difference is that the first method convinces people that they are bad. They might improve their behavior to prove you wrong, but they will believe that they are inherently bad. Eventually, their negative self-concept will wear them down and they will return to what they believe is natural to them.

The other method convinces people that they are inherently good. They have not lived up to their inherent goodness in the past, but because they are better than that, they will improve. If they believe they are better, they will be better. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first method says I am bad because I behaved badly. The second method says, I am good and such behavior is beneath me.

Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twersky of blessed memory once wrote that his father never told him, you did wrong. He would simply say, “Such behavior is not becoming of you.” This served as a subtle reminder that he was better than his behavior. It gave him the impetus to improve. Had his father told him, you are a crude boor of whom more cannot be expected, he would end up proving his father right.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak concludes that the person who lifts others up deserves to be a leader of the Jewish people. In general, Moses was one to lift others up but this time he failed. When he called them rebels, he put them down. He told them that he did not expect more of them. This is not leadership. A leader inspires people to improve. A leader does not encourage people to sin.

This is why Moses lost the privilege of leading the people. After this event, it was decreed that Moses would pass on in the desert and Joshua would lead the Jews into Israel. The inescapable conclusion is that to be a leader, we must lift people up. It doesn’t matter whether we are talking to our children, employees, colleagues, friends, or spouses. Always be a leader. Speak in ways that lift them up.

The World Concurs
Along comes Nachmanides and adds his two cents. He does not argue with Rashi, says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, he merely points out the consequence of such a lack of leadership. When Moses convinced the Jews that they were rebels, the rock refused to serve the needs of the Jews.

The Torah tells us many times that when we hearken to G-d’s will, we are rewarded. G-d struck a covenant with the works of creation. If the Jews obey me, you are to serve them. If they turn from me, you turn from them, too.

The default state of the Jewish people is to do G-d’s bidding. Therefore, the default state of nature is to provide for us. When we need rain, the rain falls, when we need sun, the sun shines, and when we need to eat, the crops are bountiful. When we turn from G-d, the opposite occurs. The rain doesn’t fall, the crops don’t grow, and we suffer.

This is why our sages taught us to fast and pray when there is a drought in Israel. When Most nations have a drought, they dig for wells. Jews traditionally prayed. Because despite the arid climate the lack of rain is not meant to be the norm in Israel. The default norm is for Jews to do G-d’s bidding and for the rain to fall. When rain doesn’t fall, we know it is not climate change or unusual weather patterns. It means we turned from G-d. So, we turn back and the rain falls again. This has been the history of the Jewish people.

This played out in the desert, too. G-d first told Moses to talk to the rock and it would provide water. Then Moses rebuked the Jews and called them rebels. This made them feel unworthy and they were demotivated. The moment that occured, the rock refused to give up its water. Talking to it would not help. Moses had to strike it.

It turns out that Rashi and Nachmanides were not arguing. They were both right. Rashi was talking about the cause and Nachmanides was talking about the effect. Rashi said that Moses demotivated the Jews by calling them rebels and Nachmanides explains that this resulted in Moses striking the rock to make it comply.

The upshot is that when we want to correct another, we must find ways to lift them up. If we lift them up, they will be successful. If we drag them down, they will clam up and won’t produce their water.[1]

[1] This essay is based on Kedushas Levi, Chukas.