July 3, 2020
Of all the interesting and stimulating accounts in this week’s double portion of Chukkat-Balak (Numbers19:1-25:9), none is more well-known and challenging as the description of Moses’ and Aaron’s punishment that would prevent them from entering the land of Israel. The text tells us: God spoke to Moses saying: “Take the staff and gather together the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it should give its waters and you shall bring out to them water from the rock and give drink to the congregation and their animals.” Moses took the staff from before God as God had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them: “Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth and the congregation and their animals drank. Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not bring this congregation to the Land I have given them. (20:7-13)
Readers of Torah and commentators in all ages and generations have tried to understand precisely what caused Moses and Aaron to lose their privileges to enter the land of Israel.
I remember hearing the story as a simple punishment – much like the ones my own parents might have given to me and/or my siblings when we did something wrong. Moses was told to speak to the rock; instead he hit it, not just once but twice – therefore God punished him. Is this really a punishment fitting the wrongdoing?
At the same time, a closer reading of the final part of this biblical passage clearly identifies the reasons as a lack of faith and a failure to sanctify God in front of the people. Of this, Midrash Rabbah, an early rabbinic commentary, asks: ‘was there not an earlier case when Moses showed a lack of faith, and a more severe one at that..?’ Do we not all have such moments when are actions might not demonstrate blind faith? Would we expect to have our life long goals and aspirations erased because of one such moment, when so many other times in our lives we act out of faith and holiness? Furthermore, how are we to know exactly what moment of question might be the one that seals our fate, ending our dreams and goals?’
So, what, exactly, was so terrible about Moses and Aaron’s actions that it warranted such a severe punishment? Consumed with trying to uncover the exact nature of their offense, the Medieval commentators find no less than ten explanations focusing on three different aspects of the Biblical account: Moses’ action in hitting the rock (hitting the rock instead of talking to it; hitting it twice, and even the specific rock he chose); the character flaws Moses demonstrated in this entire portion(his temper, fleeing to the sanctuary, and even ignoring the people’s thirst); and the specific words Moses’ used in addressing the people (questioning God, doubting God, calling the people rebels and not being specific about who the ‘we’ was who would bring forth the water.)
I see that Miriam’s death robs Moses of his ability to govern. Not yet having had a chance to mourn the love and loss of his sister, Moses lashes out at God, at people, and even at rock. His sister’s death takes from him the very ability in him that she inspired to courageously and unashamedly intercede with God on behalf of the Jewish people. In those moments of sorrow and hurt, Moses is a human being crying out in pain. And perhaps, God’s words about entering the land are less of a consequence and more a way of helping Moses to acknowledge that he and Aaron, like Miriam, had limited days in this world, and would die soon as well.
On this Shabbat, perhaps the lessons for us are the same. To remember that there are times when we need to set aside our public selves to allow us to live in the personal and individual moment less we lash out at God, our families, our community, or others in our lives. And, perhaps, like Moses, we too need to be reminded that our time in this world is not unlimited. And, like Moses in that moment, we need to remember that the meaning lies not in the destination, but in the journey.