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Parashat Chukat 5772 – 06/27/2012

Parashat Chukat


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

In honor of the birth of Nathaniel Dale Wilkerson on 6/20/2012


Moshe answered, “They will not believe me.”  (Shemot 4:1)

Gd became angry with Moshe and said, “Is there not Aharon the Levite…?”  (Shemot 4:14)

Gd said to Moshe and Aharon, “Since you didn’t have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of B’nei Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the Land which I am giving them. (20:12)

Three years ago we discussed the issue of leadership in Parashat Chukat, as it is in this Parashah that Gd decides that Moshe and Aharon are not going to be leading the nation into the Land of Israel.  I’d like to look at this issue from a slightly different angle this year.  Of course understanding the nature of Moshe and Aharon’s infraction at the rock is something which the greatest commentators of our tradition have wrestled, and they have produced many different answers.  I’m certainly in no position to try to reconcile all the different approaches, nor do I believe that they necessarily have to be reconciled – each one lends an insight into the dynamics of the relationship between Gd, the people and its leaders.

In discussing Gd’s statement in 20:12 (above) Rashi comments: Scripture reveals that if it weren’t for this one sin, they [Moshe and Aharon] would have entered the Land; so that nobody could say of them that just like the sin for which it was decreed against the rest of the Generation of the Wilderness that they would not enter the Land [i.e. the sin of the Spies], so was Moshe and Aharon’s sin (Sifrei 137, Midrash Tanchuma 10).  But was not [Moshe’s questioning Gd’s power saying] if all the flocks and cattle would be slaughtered [would I have enough meat for them?] a more serious [offense] than this?  However since that was hidden [i.e. it was a “private” discussion between Gd and Moshe] Scripture covered it over in order to sanctify Gd’s Name (Tosefta Sotah 6:4; Midrash Tanchuma 360).  Since the incident at the rock was in front of the whole nation, there was no way that Gd could keep it under His hat so-to-speak; something had to be done, and Gd’s response was to decree that Moshe and Aharon would not lead the nation into the Land of Israel.

It appears that Rashi is hinting that the reality of the situation is deeper than what is portrayed in a superficial reading of the text.  While he states what appears to be the “official policy” of the text, that Moshe and Aharon were to be prevented from leading the nation into the Land only because of their actions at Mei Merivah (Waters of Strife), he goes right ahead and indicates that there were other actions that were in fact more serious, and presumably therefore at least as deserving of this very decree.  In addition to the incident with the quail that he mentions here, we could add: Moshe’s resistance to being Gd’s emissary to lead Israel out of Egypt to begin with (in Parashat Shemot); Moshe’s complaint to Gd after Pharaoh issues his “bricks without straw” edict; the various times Moshe became angry with the people (e.g. when they tried to stockpile manna, or when they took the Midianite women captive after the incident at Peor). 

What is the common thread in all these situations?  This is a bit hard to tease out, simply because Moshe Rabbeinu was on such an incomparably higher spiritual level than we are – it is almost impossible for us to grasp the reality he lived in.  When Gd tells Moshe and Aharon “you didn’t have faith in me” this hardly means that they lacked faith in the same way that we lack faith.  Moshe and Aharon were as close to Gd as any human beings have ever been; their faith was based on direct experience of Gd’s Existence and the way Gd interacts with the Creation, whereas we have a great deal of difficulty convincing ourselves intellectually that Gd probably does exist, and that there is a deep significance to Scripture, even if we don’t have a clue what that might be.  Any statement that indicates a lack of faith on Moshe or Aharon’s part can only mean some slight, but apparently significant, diminution of the closeness between these two quintessential leaders and Gd.

Why was there this slippage?  One would think that if one had a perfectly clear experience of Gd that it would be so transformative to one’s personality, and even to one’s physical structure, that any slippage would be impossible.  I don’t know the answer to that question, although the Midrash Rabbah, in discussing why Ya’akov feared his upcoming confrontation with Esau, indicates that Ya’akov feared that through some imperfection he might have forfeited Gd’s protection.  The Midrash concludes that all righteous individuals live with this fear.  Apparently even the most righteous among us are still finite, and as such, do not approach the perfection of the infinite Gd.

Ibn Ezra adduces a different reason.  He posits that just as a leader affects his people, so the people affect the leader.  Any people has a collective consciousness all its own – while we know that Americans are a very diverse group of people, we can still speak, in general terms, of the way Americans think and behave.  This is the basis of our Sages’ statement that every nation has an “angel” that directs its affairs on earth and in heaven; the interaction of the “angels” is an interaction of the collective behavior of the peoples they represent.  Now if the people act in accordance with Gd’s Will, then it is possible for the leader to draw ever closer to Gd, which in turn supports the spiritual development of the people.  When the people go in the opposite direction, it creates an atmosphere of tension and disorder, and the leader’s soul is disturbed and unsettled, and is therefore unable to maintain the same close connection with Gd.  In this sense we might say that Moshe and Aharon’s slips from their high pedestal were due to the sins of the people.

I believe there is another aspect, one which is perhaps most plainly evident in Moshe’s first encounter with Gd at the burning bush.  When Gd tells him to go to Egypt and speak to the Israelites in His Name, Moshe’s response is they will not believe me.  Perhaps this was conditioned by Moshe’s early experience with the Israelites, before he had to flee Egypt.  When he tries to break up the fight between the two Hebrew men they rebuke him and demand to know why he thinks he is in a position to rule over them.  Many decades later (by the tradition, Moshe was 12 when he fled Egypt, and Torah tells us he was 80 when he returned), and presumably having had little contact with the people (this was before Twitter), he still thinks of them in the same way he did as a result of this encounter.  Gd indicates most strongly that this was inappropriate – he turns Moshe’s arm into a mass of tzara’at, the punishment for evil speech!  In the first incident of bringing forth water from the rock Moshe says that the people are just about to stone him to death.  Again, Gd indicates that he has spoken improperly, telling him to pass before all the people; the Midrash fills in: and see if they stone you!  Finally, in our incident, Moshe begins the miracle by getting angry and calling the people out as rebels.

I think Torah is telling us that just as much as a leader needs to have faith in Gd, he also needs to have faith in his people.  Perhaps this is where the chink in Moshe’s armor lay.  From beginning to end, Moshe appears to have had his doubts, even as he vigorously defended us at every turn.  From saying they will not believe me at the beginning of his mission, to reminding the people about to cross the Jordan and conquer the Land: from the time that I have known you until this very day you have been rebels against Hashem (Deut 9:24), it appears that Moshe can’t reconcile himself to the fact that the people are not at the same level that he was at.  Moshe Rabbeinu was so suffused with Divine Light that he was almost blinded to the fact that the rest of us are still on the path.  Now, as we were about to leave the desert and the open miracles that accompanied us – the Clouds of Glory, the miraculous well, the manna, it seems inevitable that the gap between Moshe Rabbeinu and the people would grow larger and larger.  Perhaps if Moshe had entered the Land, he would continue to have his sustenance provided miraculously, but the rest of the nation would have to plow and plant, thresh and grind.  We would have to be concerned with our material needs, at least until we would ascend to a level where the material world would spontaneously organize itself to take care of those needs without any effort on our part.  It is vital that a leader not be too far out in front of the flock.  Perhaps Moshe Rabbeinu’s only real “sin” was his very greatness.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 5

Mishnah 2

There were ten generations from Adam to Noah, which teaches Gd’s patience, for all of those generations angered Him more and more, until He brought the waters of the Flood upon them.

R. Lau points out that the Mishnah can be translated more literally as how much patience there is before Him.  Even though the people sinned grievously before Him, that is, even though they were cognizant that Gd exists and demands a certain standard of behavior from people, still Gd remained patient.  As the prophet Yechezkel says, Do I desire the death of the wicked?  Rather [I desire] that the wicked man will repent of his ways and live (18:23).  Of course Gd has all the time in the world, so to speak, so He can wait generations.  But perhaps more to the point, Gd believes in us.  Gd certainly knows our natures, that we are drawn by our bodies away from the spiritual and eternal to the temporal and physical.  Nonetheless, He also is aware of the power of t’shuvah, repentance, to allow us to change direction and begin to live the life of the spirit.  If Gd has such faith in us, surely we should have faith in ourselves, and begin to put our lives more and more in a positive direction every day!