Parashat Hukkat

Responding to Thirst

Moses' frustration and fatigue were no excuse for his refusal to accept the people's cry for help.

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Parashat Hukkat brings one of the most famous of biblical stories: Moses strikes the rock and is thereafter barred from entering the land of Canaan.  The outline of the story is spare. Toward the end of the Israelites' 40-year journey through the wilderness, the people begin to whine and grumble (once again) about their thirst. In response, Moses and his brother Aaron consult with God, who tells them to speak to a stone and it will bring forth water. Moses, instead, berates the people--"Listen up, you rebels!"--and strikes the rock. 

Water comes forth and the people drink, but God punishes Moses and Aaron, saying, "Because you did not trust in Me enough to make Me holy before the Israelites, you will not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." Everlastingly holy as God may be, Moses and Aaron fail to demonstrate God's holiness to the people and for this they are chastised and severely punished.

For more than 2000 years, rabbinic commentators have struggled to understand the nature of Moses' sin--and, thus, to understand what Moses failed to do in order to make God holy before the Israelites. The commentators have diverged significantly. Rashi, for example, says that Moses' sin is that he struck the stone, whereas Maimonides says it is that he lost his temper. Nahmanides, with a third interpretation, teaches that Moses' sin was in claiming too much power for himself.

The 12th century biblical commentator Ibn Ezra offers a unique and compelling reading of the text. He argues that Moses' grave error was in calling the people "rebels" when their behavior was not, in fact, rebellious. We learn later in the Book of Numbers that in God's view it was not the people who were rebels in this story but Moses and Aaron themselves. God tells them, "You rebelled against My instruction [and failed] to make Me holy in eyes [of the Israelites]."

Moses' failure to make God holy before the Israelites resided in his misidentification as "rebellious" the people's legitimate behavior. Their complaints about the lack of water needed to be honored with regard and compassion rather than the ire and frustration Moses meted out. Though Moses had borne 40 years of frequent complaints from these same people, their demand for water needed to be considered anew and respected in full. His frustration and fatigue were no excuse for his refusal to accept the people's request. This refusal, in turn, represented a failure to make God holy in their eyes.

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Jordana Schuster is a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. She is a graduate of Williams College and has studied at the Conservative Yeshiva and at Harvard Divinity School, from which she holds a Master of Theological Studies.