I recently finished reading “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World” by 4 Star Admiral William McRaven (Ret). The book is the expanded version of his May 2014 commencement address at The University of Texas at Austin (watch here). In the address, Adm. McRaven referenced the UT slogan, “What starts here changes the world” as a basis to share ten principles he learned during Navy Seal training that helped him during his career and his life.
Adm. McRaven’s first principle advises that you make your bed each and every morning. He recounts his time in Seal training and explains that to make your bed each morning is to start each day with a task completed. As I was reading the book and reading the parsha this week, one specific piece of advice that was shared resonated deeply.
On Shabbat morning we read the story (Numbers 20) of when the Israelite nation began to complain to Moses and Aaron about their lack of food and water. Moses and Aaron converse with God about how to handle the situation and are told to speak to a rock in order to get water. Moses then turns to the people and says “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” At which point Moses hits the rock and out comes water. Then in v.12, we learn that because Moses and Aaron did not sanctify God’s name they will not lead the nation into the land. What is the deal? Because, in this instance, they did not sanctify God’s name, Moses and Aaron are barred from entering the land of Israel? The classic understanding put forth by Rashi is that Moses did not listen. He was told explicitly to talk to the rock and instead he hit it. While this rationale is certainly plausible, it has never sat well with me. Does the punishment fit the crime? Perhaps not, and then we must ask ourselves, “Does the punishment need to fit the crime?” While we want a rationale, we want things to make sense. Perhaps there is no rhyme or reason for God’s decision, it just is!
At this point Adm. McRaven’s advice fell on me. In Chapter 4 entitled, “Life’s Not Fair – Drive On”, Adm. McRaven recounts the humbling and uncomfortable Navy Seal tradition of being made into a sugar cookie. A sugar cookie (skip to 36 seconds into the video) is when a sailor is made to lie down, in their uniform, on the soft Pacific Ocean sand and roll around untill their entire uniform and body are covered. And you remain in your uniform all day. Adm. McRaven describes being made a sugar cookie one morning and that after completing the task, his commanding officer asked McRaven if he knew why he was made to be a sugar cookie. McRaven did not, at which point the officer explained: “Life isn’t fair and the sooner you learn that the better off you will be.” (p. 39)
When I read this lesson, I realized that for any number of reasons this understanding landed much better than the classical understanding. The reality is that things happen in life. You can always find a rationale, you can always search for greater understanding, but that does not mean it’s right. Perhaps Moses and Aaron’s fate was not tied to their actions with the rock. Maybe life sometimes isn’t fair. The world is not out to get you. It isn’t fate or karma. It’s not about “how your parents treated you, or what school you went to.” (p. 42) It’s simply that things happen, and taking your next step afterward is all that matters. While Aaron dies only a few verses later, Moses goes on to continue his relationship with God and the Israelites.
When something bad happens we must look back and see how our behavior impacted the situation. At the same time, we must also realize that we cannot go back in time. The lesson is to be a better person, and as Adm. McRaven writes, “Stand tall, look to the future, and drive on!!” (p.42).