Moshe is standing on top of the hill looking out to the Promised Land.
‘What I wouldn’t give to enter the Land!’ cries Moshe.
‘Quiet! I have decreed that you will pass in this wilderness,’ is the Almighty’s response.
‘Please God, I have led these people like a humble shepherd for forty years! Why have I now been denied entry?’ Moshe beseeches.
‘You know the answer to that,’ replies God sternly, ‘When the Children of Israel were thirsty, I instructed you to speak to the rock and ask it for water. Instead you had a momentary lapse of judgment and struck the rock. You have therefore forfeited your right to a portion in the Land.’
Thus, Moshe, our greatest prophet and leader, remained in the wilderness, buried all alone, while Yehoshua led the people into the Promised Land. But was it not just a drop too harsh a punishment for such a small infraction? Moshe was so faithful to Heaven all those years. And then in one quick moment to lose it all? How was that a just and fair Divine decision?
תַּנְיָא אָמַר רַבִּי צָדוֹק: כָּךְ הָיָה מִנְהָגוֹ שֶׁל בֵּית רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, שֶׁהָיוּ נוֹתְנִין כְּלֵי לָבָן לְכוֹבֵס שְׁלֹשָׁה יָמִים קוֹדֶם לַשַּׁבָּת, וּצְבוּעִים אֲפִילּוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת. וּמִדִּבְרֵיהֶם לָמַדְנוּ שֶׁהַלְּבָנִים קָשִׁים לְכַבְּסָן יוֹתֵר מִן הַצְּבוּעִין. אַבָּיֵי הֲוָה יָהֵיב לֵיהּ הַהוּא מָנָא דִצְבִיעָא לְקַצָּרָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כַּמָּה בָּעֵית עִילָּוֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כִּדְחִיוָּרָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כְּבָר קַדְמוּךָ רַבָּנַן. אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: הַאי מַאן דְּיָהֵיב מָנָא לְקַצָּרָא, בְּמִשְׁחָא נִיתֵּיב לֵיהּ וּבְמִשְׁחָא נִשְׁקוֹל מִינֵּיהּ. דְּאִי טְפֵי — אַפְסְדֵיהּ דְּמַתְחֵיהּ. וְאִי בְּצִיר — אַפְסְדֵיהּ דְּכַוְּוצֵיהּ
Rabbi Tzadok said: This was the custom of the house of Rabban Gamliel: They would give white clothes to the launderer three days before Shabbat, and coloured clothes even on Shabbat eve. And from their statement we learned that white garments are more difficult to launder than coloured. Abaye once gave a coloured garment to the launderer. He said to him: How much do you want for it? He said to him: Same as for white. Abaye said to him: The Sages have already beaten you to the mark (and ruled that colours are less difficult to wash, and should therefore be cheaper). Abaye said: One who gives clothing to the launderer, he should measure it before and after. In that way, if it is longer, it is an indication that the launderer caused him a loss because he stretched the garment. And if it is shorter, he caused him a loss because he shrunk it.
When a garment is stained, is it harder to remove the stain from a white garment or a coloured garment? The prima facie answer from the Gemara is that it is easier to remove a stain from a coloured garment. But in reality, a stain is a stain, regardless of the colour of the garment upon which it lands. It has a certain chemical consistency and no matter its surroundings, it will require the same amount of effort to extract. So why does the Gemara suggest that it is easier to remove a stain from a coloured garment?
The answer is that it is not easier to remove the stain from the coloured garment. Rather, on a coloured garment, even if you don’t remove it entirely, the colour of the garment will hide the mark. Thus, even if a small amount of the chemical substance remains on the garment, it will be difficult to discern and less of a concern. In contrast, a stain upon a white garment requires a cleansing so thorough that it removes the substance in its entirety in order to make it presentable for use.
Looking at the facts of Moshe’s rock-striking incident objectively, he could hardly have been held responsible and punishable to the extent of being barred entry into the Promised Land. The people were crying out for water. On a previous occasion, God had indeed instructed him to strike the rock. In this instance, he tried speaking to the rock, as Hashem had commanded. But when that failed to work and hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children – yes, children! – were looking so pale and on the verge of fainting in the hot desert sun, he tried something that had worked years earlier. He struck the rock. And sure enough, a drop of water emerged. And so he struck it again. And the water gushed forth! What a tzaddik! What compassion he demonstrated towards his brethren! And yet, he was punished. Why?
Moshe Rabbeinu was like a white garment. The tiniest, lightest stain made its mark until it was near impossible to remove. God said ‘Speak to the rock!’ and he acted contrary to God’s will. At that moment, he thought that an alternative approach might work better. Anyone else – any coloured garment person – God could have forgiven. They would have been lauded for their creativity and their ability to think fast under pressure and the stain would have been scrubbed away. But not Moshe. He should have obeyed God unwaveringly. That tiny stain was there forever.
Does that mean that a person with a more checkered, coloured track record would no longer have had the mark on their soul, if the incident had happened to them? No, the stain would have remained. But when you’re wearing a coloured garment, it’s difficult to discern a very light stain.
While such an appreciation of Moshe’s experience might be logical, you might be thinking, ‘Well then, why should I bother striving for spiritual excellence? The whiter my garment gets, the more discernible the stains will be. Let me just go about my coloured life and my life won’t be so scrutinized by the heavenly court!’
It is said that the great student of the Arizal, Rabbi Chaim Vital declared, “A man is required to wear white garments (on Shabbat) and not of any other colour. I received from my teacher that according to the colour and hue of a man’s garments that he wears on the Shabbat in this world, thus exactly will a man be dressed in the world to come, after his death on every Shabbat day. He said to me that one Kabbalat Shabbat the soul of a certain sage who had died in his days appeared to him. He saw him wearing all black on the Shabbat day. He said to him, “since I wore black on the day of Shabbat in this world, thus do they punish me here after my passing to wear black garments even on the Shabbat day.”
This kabbalistic teaching is one of the reasons that many people endeavour to wear a white shirt on Shabbat. But of course, the story is not to be understood literally. It is an elucidation of the concept in our Gemara of the difference between wearing white clothes and coloured clothes (with black being situated at the other end of the spectrum that begins with white and progresses towards bright colours and then dark colours until it eventually gets to black).
What did this sage mean when he said he wore black clothes in this world? It would seem that he adopted a lackadaisical approach towards his personal religious standards. He was content to measure his Jewish observance by what others were doing. But like Abaye says, one must always make sure to measure the garment before and after cleaning, to ensure that it hasn’t been stretched or shrunk. Each garment is different and can only be measured against itself. He measured his garment’s size and colour against those around him, instead of holding himself to personal measure of excellence before God.
When you wash clothes, you need to separate them out into three piles: whites, brights, and darks. You would assume that, as you move along the colour spectrum, the temperature would increase. But it’s not so simple. Whites are washed in hot water, bright colours are washed in cold water, and dark colours are washed in warm water! Why do we that? Whites require the deepest clean. Dark-coloured garments you can wash in warm water. Even if the colours run a little, it won’t be noticeable. But with brights you need to be very careful that the colours don’t run from one garment to another.
Most of us aren’t black or white. We fall somewhere in between. We run the risk of our colours running with others around us. We look at our peers and neighbours and model our behaviour and standards based on what others are doing. But when brights get coloured from other garments, it’s not good.
You are running your own personal marathon. Nobody else is in the race, just you. Only you and God know how well you respond when God commands you to ‘speak to the rock.’ Spirituality requires self-awareness and constant reassessment of your garment’s measurements to make sure you’re not shrinking or over-stretching, based on what you see other people doing.
Rashi points out that garments shrink in hot water. The obvious solution would be to avoid using hot water to launder. The answer, of course, is that when clothes are white, they require a more thorough cleansing. May you strive to make your soul brighter and brighter and conduct your spiritual affairs in a way that measures-up for you personally!