Getting ready for the New Year of the Trees
"Different Strokes" published in The Women's Times

Water from the rock (Radical Torah repost)

And here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion in 2007 for the now-defunct Radical Torah! Enjoy, y'all.

This week we're in parashat Beshalach, in which the Israelites pass through the Sea of Reeds and begin their wandering in the wilderness. Late in the parsha, the people camp at Rephidim, where there is no water, and the people begin to grumble. Moses cries out to God, "What shall I do with this people? Before long they will be stoning me!" God offers this in response:

Pass before the people; take with you some of the elders of Israel, and take along the rod with which you struck the Nile, and set out. I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.

The two obvious questions arising out of these verses are, what does it mean that God will be standing there on the rock, and what does it mean that God tells Moses to strike a rock with his staff?

Hineni omeid lephanekha sham al hatzur, God says: "Here I am, standing before you there on the rock." The tradition teaches us to read these images metaphorically; God doesn't literally stand before Moses, just as it was no literal "mighty hand and outstretched arm" that brought us forth from Mitzrayim. I'm intrigued by the suggestion that God is specifically in that place. Torah tells us that the whole earth is full of God's glory, that no place is devoid of God -- so what does it mean to suggest that God is especially in one place?

In Berachot 6b, the Sages explain that "standing," amidah, refers to prayer. (They cite the Torah verse "Pinchas stood and prayed" as a prooftext; bear in mind that, in Talmudic days as now, the central prayer of Jewish worship was recited standing, and one of its names is "amidah," the standing prayer.) Perhaps this means that God, too, stands in prayer, or at least in the kind of focused awareness that deep prayer requires and creates. In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev writes,

Remember, it is a fact that our actions here below arouse similar movements in supernal realms. Therefore, when we attain the level of "standing" before the Blessed One alone, then out of love for Israel the Blessed One stands before us, as it were, just as we are standing before God.

If Moses can stand fully before God in this place, then God will respond in kind. When we bring our whole presence to an encounter, we awaken that same whole presence in God. Maybe this is what is meant by "Here I am, standing before you there on the rock" -- that when Moses and the community are fully present in their need, God will respond with hineni, "here I am."

That God's presence permeates all of creation is a generalized truth. In this moment the Israelites need a more specific kind of presence; they need God to be present for and to them, right where they are. And God tells Moses that this is indeed the case. God is "standing" on that very rock before them, and they can become aware of that if only they can open their eyes and plant their feet.

And, of course, if Moses will strike the rock -- which seems odd to us. Whacking a stone with a staff doesn't generate water, at least not in any ordinary reality. Perhaps this instruction is meant to spur a leap of faith, mirroring the leap the Israelites took when they entered the Sea of Reeds. (Midrash tells us the sea parted only when the Israelites had entered the waters up to their necks. Here, similarly, the rock gives forth water only once Moses takes action as he is commanded -- however illogical that action might seem.) And maybe what matters is the internal or emotional shift that manifests in Moses' physical act.

If he had struck the rock without first bringing himself fully to the experience, maybe nothing would have transpired. But because he was aware that he was standing in God's presence, and that God was "standing" in his, the physical act took on new significance. This is a central tenet of Hasidic thought: that our actions reverberate in supernal realms, and what we do here impacts the nature of divine reality.

There's a reciprocity here. One only gets as much out of an experience as one's able to put into it. In this case, the Israelites only get water from the rock when they're both willing and able to take action to generate that water. When we stand before God fully present, then God in turn stands fully present before us...which means that when Moses taps the rock with his staff, God is already awakened to the Israelites' presence and their need, and in response God causes shefa, divine abundance, to flow forth.

But why is striking the rock necessary? If God is already aware of the need, why not simply fill the need? It sounds like a simple answer, but it doesn't seem to be how the world works. We can arouse God's compassion and beneficence, but we have to take the first step. In the ongoing waltz that is our religious life, God expects us to lead. God will gladly teach us the steps and tell us how to perform them, but putting them in action is up to us.