Responding to Thirst

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

Commentary on Parashat Chukat, Numbers 19:1 - 22:1

Parashat Chukat 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 2,000 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.

Recognizing Thirst

In our own time, we are surrounded, often bombarded, by the needs of others. As we read about the Israelites’ thirst in the desert, the incredible number of people in our world who are thirsty stand facing us.

According to a study presented at the Harvard School of Public Health, more than one billion people worldwide lack safe water sources, and 2.6 billion have no basic sanitation. Nearly two million people (90 percent of them under the age of 5) die from dehydration and associated malnutrition or microbial diseases each year. And these statistics touch on only one aspect of human need.

Yet we who turn on our taps each day have struggles of our own to negotiate. Like Moses in this parsha, we may have undergone our own pain and loss, we may have journeyed too far without enough resources or support, or we may be overwhelmed by the neediness of those who face us. For these reasons and many others, we do not always give. We do not always feel that we can give. Like Moses, we have had occasion to hear others’ grievances and identified them as affronts against us, as greed, or perhaps we have turned away unwilling or unable to face their needs with an open hand.

Our own needs and thirsts should not be denied. Still, our responsibility to make God holy in the eyes of others (and in our own eyes as well) makes it incumbent upon us not to deny the thirsts of those who turn to us for help. It is upon us to see and correctly identify the rightful claims that others bring. Perhaps through this we learn that we can indeed bring God’s holiness to all people. On our narrow path through this world we are bound to err, but we must keep trying to walk that road through the wilderness by recognizing the full humanity of those who journey with us.

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit


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