Would a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Of course not! Why do people prefer to buy a lovely Red Snapper instead of the same Rockfish or Tilapia? Standards of even human beauty change, and people follow the labels. The same person might readily be called a genius or an eccentric or an idiot – and others react to those titles as if they had some truth of their own.
Labels are powerful things. We – certainly I – scoff at the idea of microagressions, but I don’t doubt for an instant that a teacher can build up or devastate a student using nothing more than words of praise or criticism. By their very nature, labels are dangerous things: they lock both the accuser and the accused into the past, instead of looking toward the future. Destructive comments are particularly harmful because we should want people to have every opportunity to improve and grow and change.
Yet there are times when labels are absolutely necessary. Someone who murders is a murderer. As much as we want people to grow, there are red lines that we cannot simply ignore. The goal of much of society’s customs is to keep people from getting too close to the red lines.
For example, in Judaism one of these red lines is infidelity. In Jewish Law, a man cannot stay married to a woman who he knows has cheated on him – the word the Torah connects the suspected adulteress is “marah” – bitter. To try to limit even the opportunity to cross such a line, we avoid seclusion and even casual contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex.
There are, of course, other societal red lines: a son who rebels against his parents is labeled, and condemned to death. While in Jewish history we lack even a single example of this ever happening, the label is there to keep us cognizant that there are lines that, once crossed, cannot be ignored. Interestingly, the same word for “rebel” is the word for “bitter.”
Bitter ideas eat away at the soul, giving us suspicion, and distrust. In its ultimate form, bitterness becomes rebellion, an open and unapologetic rejection of all that we are supposed to love. And while suspicion can – and should – be sorted out, open rebellion is a red line that destroys the exclusive love within a relationship.
Here we come to the limits of accusations – false name calling. The Torah permits us to name bad things when the situation is otherwise beyond recovery. But G-d punishes false accusations, even when the accuser is the greatest among us.
Here’s the text (Numbers 20)
And there was no water for the congregation: and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.
3 And the people strove with Moses, and spoke, saying, Would that we had died when our brethren died before the LORD!
4 And why have ye brought up the congregation of the LORD into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there?
5 And wherefore have ye made us to come up out of Egypt, to bring us in unto this evil place? it is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; neither is there any water to drink.
6 And Moses and Aaron went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the LORD appeared unto them.
7 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying,
8 Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock: so thou shalt give the congregation and their beasts drink.
9 And Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as he commanded him.
10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said unto them, Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock?
11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he smote the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also.
12 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.
The classic question is always asked: what did Moshe and Aharon do wrong? There are many common answers, each with merit (they fell on their faces instead of proclaiming that G-d would solve the problem, Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it, they claimed credit for producing the water, etc.), but I would like to suggest another one: Moshe and Aharon called the people rebels, when they were not. It was a false accusation!
Bitterness (such as that is Isaac and Rivka when Esau marries out, the bitter waters leaving Egypt, the bitter waters of the suspected adulteress) comes from suspicion of infidelity. These all have to be addressed.
But open rebellion has to be punished – and the people were not suggesting that they worship another G-d, or that Moshe was not G-d’s chosen leader. All they were doing was complaining, which is in the finest Jewish tradition. Jews complain – it is something that we have always done well, in good times and in bad.
But Moshe and Aharon took the complaint as something it was not, and accused the Jewish people of rebelling against G-d.
This explains why the specific punishment for the two leaders was they would not be allowed to enter the land of Israel. Israel is the cradle for the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d, and that relationship, like all relationships, depends on certain underlying assumptions – chief among them, fidelity.
By accusing the Jewish people of being rebels, Moshe was saying that we were unfaithful to G-d (just as a rebellious son is being unfaithful to his parents, and just as a proven adulteress is forbidden to her husband). Crossing this red line necessarily ends any relationship. If we truly were rebels, we could not have entered the Land of Israel. But we were not – and in classic “measure for measure” punishment, the leaders who falsely accused us of being rebels were barred from entering the land.
Labels matter. We should always think twice before slinging them around.