Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1
In Parashat Chukat, we find an overwhelming concern with death. At the beginning we find the mysterious laws of the Red Heifer, a very rare animal that is burnt in a special fire outside the camp. Its ashes are then used to ritually purify those who have become impure due to contact with a dead body.
The portion then jumps ahead 38 years to the end of the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. We read the brief description of the death of Miriam, the prophetess who was the older sister of Moses and Aaron, and then an incident about the people’s need for water. These two events are in fact connected by the Rabbis of the Talmud, who notice that stories with Miriam are always associated with water.
The people complain about thirst, and Moses is instructed by God to speak to a rock, which will then produce water. Seemingly frustrated and saddened by his sister’s death, Moses strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. Water does flow, but Moses is chastised by God for his lack of trust, and he is told that he will not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land.
We then read of Aaron’s death and the people’s mourning for him for 30 days. The portion ends by describing a number of battles the Israelites must fight as they travel through the wilderness.
And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank (Numbers 20:11).
This is really one of the saddest passages in the Torah. Moses, the longtime leader of the Israelites and the greatest teacher and prophet our tradition has ever known, loses control of himself, and is punished in a particularly harsh way (from his point of view) by God.
The Israelites are camped at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, when Miriam, Moses’ sister and one of the leaders of the people, suddenly dies. The text then tells us immediately afterwards that the people are without water (this is the basis for the strong tradition that teaches that it was because of Miriam’s merit that water was provided to the Israelites in the wilderness).
The people start complaining profusely to Moses and Aaron, who go to the Tent of Meeting to confer with God. God instructs them both to take a rod and, in full view of the entire community, they are to order the rock to give water. Moses and Aaron do as they are told, gathering the people together, but then chastise the people, and demand, “Shall WE get water for you out of this rock?” Then, rather then speaking to the rock, Moses hits it twice with the rod. As God promised, water flows from the rock, but Moses and Aaron are taken to task by God for not doing exactly as God instructed.
God declares their punishment: Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. Neither Moses nor Aaron will be allowed to enter into the Promised Land.
Commentators throughout history have struggled with this passage, trying to come to terms with the severity of God’s punishment of Moses. After all, this is MOSES, the great leader of the people, the one who stood up to Pharaoh and led the Israelites not only out of slavery in Egypt, but then continued to lead them for 40 years, forming them into a people and coping with their day to day gripes. After shlepping around with the contentious people for 40 years, should Moses not at least be allowed to enter into the land that has been promised to them for so long? Was he not a fully human leader, surely subject to bouts of self-doubt and frustration?
And let us remember too that Moses was grieving — he had just lost his big sister, the one who helped save his very life when he was an infant. The loss of a close family member must have surely impaired his functioning. What exactly then did Moses do to deserve such a severe punishment? Should God not have shown more mercy to his most faithful servant?
Generally it is understood that Moses was punished for disobeying God’s instructions. God clearly instructed him to “speak” to the rock, but instead he hit it, not just once, but twice. Rashi suggests that God seemed to be dismayed that Moses robbed him of the opportunity to impress the people with the miracle. More simply, Moses displayed a lack of faith or compliance with God’s command, something that was common among the people.
But Moses was not just an average Israelite; he was the leader of the people and therefore expected to set a higher example. As the Zohar (the foundational Kabbalistic text) teaches (ii, 47a), “The acts of the leader are the acts of the nation. If the leader is just, the nation is just; if he is unjust, the nation too is unjust and is punished for the sin of the leader.”
Aaron, who witnessed the incident, is also held accountable. If Moses had only hit the rock once, only he would have been punished for the act. But since Moses hit the rock twice, Aaron is deemed culpable as well. After seeing Moses hit the rock once, Aaron should have stopped him before Moses hit the rock a second time.
According to Moses Maimonides, (also known as the Rambam), the main sin of Moses and Aaron was in the language they used when they spoke to the people: “Listen you rebels…” Surely, all the prophets (of which Moses is one) spoke to the people with harsh language, and it was effective and deserved. But here it is deemed inappropriate since the people only sought water, a basic human need. There was no reason to speak to the people as Moses did, except for his own needs. He compromised his own leadership, and therefore was punished by not be allowed to lead the people into the Promised Land. He could only the lead the people so far.
Moses’ sin may not have been so great. If anyone else had done the same, they surely would have been given a second chance. However, for all the same reasons that we may feel that Moses should have received some compassion, he was held to the highest accountability for his actions. As the leader of the people, he was expected to be the paragon of faith and virtue.
We may understand that he was human, and grief, frustration, weariness and stress can certainly add up to make us less then our best selves. But in positions of high leadership, the tough decisions and constancy of action are expected even during times of weakness. That’s what separates a great leader from a good leader. Moses was great leader, but had his moments of weakness. For that, he was held accountable.
Moses had spoken against God when Israel had wanted meat, and had said to God, “If You would slaughter all the sheep and oxen in the world, would it suffice?” To say that God could not provide enough meat, is a greater sin than not speaking to the rock but hitting it instead. Why did God not punish Moses then, and sentence him to death in the wilderness? Because the sin of the rock was committed before all of Israel, and thus led to a desecration of God’s name. God will forgive all sins, but Chillul HaShem, the sin of desecrating the Divine Name, God will not forgive. (Tz’enah Ur’enah).
Reprinted with permission from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.