Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Chukat: Let Me Repeat

The poem had a place of prominence on our kitchen bulletin board for many years. We had clipped it from a women’s magazine, and although it was too sugary and sentimental for my personal literary taste, it was very encouraging to my wife and me as we raised our teenage daughters. The poem was written by an early middle-aged mother and described a visit she had with her daughter, now grown, over tea one fine afternoon.

We have long lost our copy of that poem, but its message remains as clear as day. The poem relates how, over tea that day, the younger woman thanked her mother for all the lessons she learned from her. She confessed that she once found her mother’s repetitive teachings about proper behavior to be useless and annoying. But she now had come to appreciate just how useful and important those teachings were. She thanked her mother for what she learned and expressed special gratitude for her patient reiteration of those lessons. The mother ends her poem with an expression of pride in herself and in her daughter.

This poem and its lesson came to mind recently—just the other day, in fact—when I visited the synagogue where I served as rabbi some years ago. A young man whom I remembered as a teenager approached me and said that he felt he owed me an apology. He proceeded to tell me how sorry he was for not appreciating my tendency, in my sermons and lectures, to repeatedly emphasize the importance of the precise translation of Hebrew words and phrases.

“Each time that you would insist that the common translation of, for example, kedusha as ‘holiness’ was not quite accurate, we kids would roll our eyes in exasperation. You would sometimes do that three or four times in just one sermon.” He then told me how he and his friends had come to understand the importance of nuance, especially in rendering biblical Hebrew into English.

I must confess that even today I preserve that tendency to repeat myself, and it is not always attributable to my increasingly frequent “senior moments.” Quite the contrary; I consciously and intentionally repeat matters that I think are important, especially in my public speeches. I base my conviction that repetition is necessary and effective upon a comment by a great man on a passage in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1).

The story is well known. The Children of Israel complain to Moses and Aaron about the lack of water in the wilderness. They fall upon their faces in prayer, and the Almighty responds by telling Moses to take his staff, gather the people, and speak to the rock which is before their eyes. The Lord assures Moses that he will be able to draw forth sufficient water from the rock for the people and for their cattle.

Moses takes the staff, assembles the people, and castigates them angrily. He then lifts his hand and strikes the rock with his staff not once but twice. Indeed abundant water flows from the rock.

The Almighty then expresses his disappointment to Moses and Aaron. He tells them that because they did not believe in him sufficiently to sanctify his Name before all the people, they would be denied the privilege of bringing the people into the holy land.

Throughout the ages, commentaries have found difficulty with this narrative. Rashi insists that Moses sinned by striking the rock and not just speaking to it. Others have objected to Rashi’s approach because drawing water from the rock in the desert is equally miraculous whether it is accomplished by speaking to the rock or striking it. Water flowing from a rock when it is struck with a wooden staff is itself a wondrous miracle, certainly sufficient to impress the people with God’s miraculous powers.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the late-20th century sage whom I was privileged to meet personally, offers a simple and innovative response to this objection. He writes: “The Almighty preferred that Moses speak to the rock because he wanted to teach the lesson that one must speak words of Torah and ethics even to those who seem not to comprehend. Repeating and reviewing ultimately results in understanding. A parent, for example, must never despair of educating his children just because they appear not to understand what he is telling them. One must constantly speak to others, over and over, until they understand and act accordingly, just like the rock could not understand but eventually fulfilled God’s will. Certainly, human beings, although they seem now not to understand at all, will eventually reach understanding.”

Rabbi Feinstein’s insight is such an important one, especially to rabbis, parents, and teachers. Rarely does our audience seem to be attentive and receptive to our message. But if we earnestly attempt to present our message intelligently, and if we repeat it sufficiently, we will be heard, later if not sooner. This was the experience of the mother who wrote the poem which graced our kitchen wall for many years, and this was the experience of the young man who came to appreciate the importance of precise translation after hearing me drone on and on about it in his youth.

Although Rabbi Feinstein does not quote any Talmudic sources supporting the great value of repetition, he could easily have referred to the following passage in the Talmud, tractate Eruvin 54b:

“Rabbi Perada had a student whom he would teach each lesson four hundred times until the student finally understood. One day, Rabbi Perada received an invitation to attend a mitzvah celebration. He first sat with the student and repeated the daily lesson four hundred times, but this time to no avail. The student simply did not comprehend. Rabbi Perada asked him why he was having such difficulty on that day. The student responded that as soon as he heard that the master was invited to a mitzvah event, he became distracted, thinking that at any moment the master would interrupt the lesson and not review it with him the four hundred times that he required. Rabbi Perada patiently instructed his disciple to be calm, pay attention, and be confident that he would deliver the lesson as many times as necessary. He reviewed it four hundred times, and the disciple finally understood.” The Talmud continues to describe the earthly and heavenly rewards which Rabbi Perada received for his most unusual commitment and forbearance.

The Talmud is thus teaching us, and Rabbi Feinstein underscores it, that our sincerely-spoken words are not wasted. The educational lessons that we try to impart are eventually heard. We must not give up in our attempts to inspire, instruct and influence others. We can be assured, in the words of King Solomon:”Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days.” (Kohelet 11:1)

The Almighty had good reason to tell Moses to speak to the rock. Even rocks eventually get the message.