What about behavioral consequences anyway...

So, when you have authority over someone else and that someone else does something fairly egregious in your estimation, and as a result of that behavior you mete out some consequence, should you ever withhold the punishment? Should you ever declare that even though I said this was going to happen as a result, instead we'll just let it go?

As we approach the end of the Torah, we find a situation that troubles a lot of people. Moses has been a pretty amazing leader of the Israelites - he has managed to hold his tongue on many occasions when the tribe was acting out in the worst of ways; he has defended his people against the wrath of God more than once; he took advice and learned how to delegate. He's really been quite the role model when it comes to leadership. On one occasion,however, he did not follow God's commandment. When the Israelites were thirsty in the desert, God told Moses to speak to a rock and water would emerge. Instead, Moses struck the rock with his staff, and while water flowed forth nonetheless, because Moses did not do as God had commanded, he learned that he would never be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Fast forward to that moment when the Israelites are on the cusp of entering that Land of Milk and Honey. As promised, God informs Moses that he does not have a ticket all the way to Canaan, but rather he will be getting off at Mount Nebo on a one-way trip, i.e. God tells Moses to go up the mountain where he will die.

OK. Is this fair? Is this right? This is where people get perturbed. Moses does so many things so well FOR YEARS, and one time, one time he screws up, and he receives this incredibly harsh consequence. And by the way, at the time that he does choose to strike rather than speak to the rock, let's not forget that he has JUST suffered the loss of his dear sister and fellow prophetess and co-leader, Miriam. So, whether Moses is acting out of vanity ("I can't let all these people see me talking to a rock. I'd look foolish.") or is just distraught and distracted with grief after losing Miriam, or something else for that matter, is it fair to punish him so?

I teach 5th and 6th graders in Hebrew School, and the other day I put this question to them: Let's say you're a pretty good child. You do what your parents ask of you almost all the time; you rarely get into trouble; you're pretty considerate, etc. So, on one occasion your parents are going out and they say you can stay at home with a friend for an hour, and during that time you and your friend get into a food fight and when your folks step back into the kitchen an hour later, they see a royal mess all over the place. In a pique of anger your parents tell you that the birthday party you were going to go to next weekend is out. Forget it.

Over the next week you're even more of a model citizen than usual, and when party day rolls around, you say to your mom, "I've been really good the last week. I'd really like to go to that party. Any chance you'd reconsider?"

Well... when I asked those kids how they'd feel if their parents reconsidered, to a one they said that if their parents let them go, they probably wouldn't take the consequences they were meting out so seriously next time because they'd figure that someway or another they'd either get them removed or at a minimum reduced for time served.

So, was it unfair to punish Moses so harshly for not behaving as was demanded of him? Maybe not. It's a lot easier to behave well when there's nothing on the line or when we're filled with equanimity. When we are filled with emotions, whether anger or vanity, or when circumstances are such that we're having a real hard time, like soon after the death of a loved one, those are the moments when we're truly tested, and behaving well in those moments is perhaps what we would expect from a role model such as Moses, if not ourselves.

Interestingly, unlike that hypothetical child with a birthday party to go to, Moses never pleaded his case for a reversal. He accepted the consequences of his actions with incredible grace and did everything thereafter to see to it that the Israelites prospered and strayed not from the path. He passed on the mantle of leadership without any resistance. He acted as we would hope any leader would. And he certainly never made the claim that things were rigged against him.

So, insofar as God is frequently depicted as a parent figure in Judaism, we could argue that God picked an inappropriate consequence, but it's hard to make a case for abandoning the judgement once made, and Moses to the end modeled how best to respond to disappointment and adversity, with grace and dignity.