Parashat Hukkat

Two Strikes And They're Out?

Though we may challenge the severity of Moses' and Aaron's punishment for striking the rock, rather than speaking to it, we affirm sacredness by trying to comprehend it.

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Pagan magic may or may not involve a manual act, but it always involves the use of words…. It is a central element of Moses' prophetic role that he sever Israel from idolatrous seductions. To this end, God helps Moses by showing Israel authenticating "signs" of His power: miracles. But to ensure that Israel understands that it originates in divine will and not as a coincidence of nature, God repeatedly instructs Moses to describe the miracle in advance and to designate the precise moment of its occurrence through a specific manual act. (Jacob Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, pp. 452-453)

Your Guide

In Exodus 17:6, Moses, following God's order, had successfully provided water for the community by striking a rock. In this week's parashah, Moses is told to order the rock, not strike it twice. What is the moral lesson here?

Is it fair or appropriate to find Moses deficient in anger management? What was God's intent in this incident? Why didn't Moses and Aaron have an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves? How many strikes were Moses and Aaron actually allowed?

How should a leader's public and private behavior be judged? What criteria should be employed?

Look at the following biblical verses: Numbers 20:12, 20:24, 27:14; Deuteronomy 1:37, 3:25-26, 4:21, 32:50-52; and Psalms 106:32-33. According to the biblical writers, what did Moses and Aaron do to deserve their severe punishment?

D'var Torah

Strike one. Aaron's two sons Nadab and Abihu die in the Sanctuary while performing a mysterious and unwelcome ritual, and Aaron is informed, "Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, / And assert My authority before all the people" (Leviticus 10:3). But that is not the end of the story. Indicating their discomfort regarding the ambiguous rationale for that tragedy, the writers of the Torah repeatedly return to it (Leviticus 16:1; Numbers 3:4, 26:61).

Strike two. Then in the absence of a clear justification for the sentences imposed on Moses and Aaron, the Torah's narrative proffers the same conclusion stated in Leviticus 10:3: "Judaism teaches that the greater the man [or woman], the stricter the standard by which he [or she] is judged" (S. R. Hirsch in The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, edited by J. H. Hertz, p. 656; also see Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses, p. 754).

Yet perhaps the fact that Moses and Aaron received sentences is the lesson itself, namely, that we are not always allowed three strikes. Sometimes, the punishment is final. Amidst life's uncertainties, we cannot satisfactorily understand, let alone justify, the ultimate morality in every occurrence. Still, by our endeavor to continually recount and reconsider the past, we affirm sacred processes and quests: We are kept in the game.

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Rabbi Eric Polokoff

Rabbi Eric Polokoff is the rabbi of B'nai Israel, Southbury/Woodbury, CT.