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Parashat Chukat 5778 — 06/23/2018

Parashat Chukat 5778 — 06/23/2018

Bamidbar 19:1-22:1

Our parashah contains the second incident where Moshe Rabbeinu hit a rock to draw forth water for the people to drink. The first incident (Shemot 17:6) occurred shortly after the Exodus and before the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Now it is 40 years later, Moshe’s older sister has just died, Moshe is almost 120 and must be feeling his own end approaching, and Gd tells him to take his staff – the same staff with which he struck the first rock (the same rock according to some) – and speak to it and ask it to start providing water for 3 million people (start providing again, according to those who say it was the same rock). As we know, Moshe gets angry with the people, calls them rebels and hits the rock twice. The rock obligingly gushes forth water (some say that after the first hit it only gave forth a trickle of water, thus necessitating the second strike), but Gd chastises Moshe for not believing in Gd (?!) and condemns him to die outside of the Land of Israel.

The commentators all ask the obvious question: What was so terrible about what Moshe did that he should be barred from achieving his life’s mission – bringing the Jewish people into its Land?  The idea that Moshe did not believe in Gd sufficiently is so ludicrous that it can’t be what Torah means.  Not only is it unbelievable, it undermines the very basis of our own faith – if Moshe Rabbeinu, who spoke with Gd “face to face,” didn’t have sufficient faith, what hope is there for any of us. And if there is no hope for spiritual success, why even bother trying? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die. There has to be a back-story.

Abarbanel reviews the ideas of a number of his predecessors and finds something lacking with each. We have discussed some of these ideas in prior years. One idea that we haven’t discussed, and which Abarbanel doesn’t discuss either, as it postdates him by five centuries, is R. Sacks’ assertion that hitting the rock and speaking to the rock represent two distinct leadership styles. Forty years earlier, the Israelites had to be ruled with the rod; they were more or less a rabble of ex-slaves, who had to be beaten to perform. Moshe needed to wield the rod to whip them into shape and make a nation out of them. Now, a new generation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that they were to create an ideal society under Gd’s rule, was about to enter the Land of Israel. They were already a disciplined society, moving in a coordinated manner, and a successful army as well. Like a thoroughbred racehorse, they didn’t need to be whipped to perform, just spoken to gently. When Moshe shows that he is apparently stuck in the old style of leadership, it becomes obvious that his personality no longer fits the needs of the new generation. He must remain outside the Land along with the prior generation.

This idea of a generational shift and need for new leadership is hinted at by some unnamed sources that Abarbanel quotes who indicate that Moshe and Aharon weren’t actually punished by not being allowed to enter the Land, rather the generation was not worthy to be led into the Land by Moshe. The Midrash explains that had Moshe led the nation into the Land, he would have been able to build the Temple, and had he done so, it would have been so solidly rooted in Moshe’s exalted level of spirituality that it could not be destroyed. Unfortunately, the nation would not have been able to live up to this level of spirituality, and when the inevitable falling off of their spiritual level took place, Gd would have had to destroy them, rather than the invincible Temple. Clearly, the survival of the people is of more importance than the survival of a building.

Abarbanel’s own theory is that Moshe and Aharon were actually punished for prior transgressions. In Aharon’s case it was for his role in the Golden Calf episode, while in Moshe’s case it was his part in the debacle of the spies. Abarbanel marshals numerous reasons, some stronger and some weaker. And he explains the delay in exacting punishment until this much later incident as a way of protecting Moshe and Aharon’s honor by deflecting the reason for the punishment to the relatively minor transgression of striking the rock (although Moshe is the only one recorded as actually striking the rock, he does have Aharon with him and he does include Aharon in the whole incident by saying, “Shall we bring forth water out of this rock?”).

There are a couple of areas where Abarbanel’s reasoning appears to run counter to the usual Rabbinic logic. First, apparently striking the rock was not the basic transgression – Gd immediately told Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not believe in Me…”  To Gd it seems that their striking the rock was merely the symptom of a deeper, underlying problem.  Second, the Rabbis often tell us that the greater the person, the more stringently he is judged; even a hairbreadth’s deviation can result in a major reaction.  I would suggest, by the way, that this is because the greater the person, the more powerful the action, and a small deviation can lead to disastrous consequences down the road. If you’re shooting for the moon, even a tiny error in the angle can lead to a miss of many miles.

I don’t understand how being denied entry into the Land was a fitting reaction to the sins of the Golden Calf and the spies. Rabbinic teaching tries very hard to establish that Gd’s reactions to our actions are fitting reactions – measure for measure they apply a corrective and instructive response so that balance can be restored, and so that we can avoid similar mistakes in the future. How does Gd’s keeping Moshe and Aharon from leading the people into the Land correct the two previous sins? For that matter, how does it correct the current incident, if we take the reaction to be simply to the action of striking the rock?!

I feel uncomfortable with a reward/punishment model of Gd’s interaction with human beings to begin with. I don’t believe Gd is vindictive, and while this model professes to hold that Gd’s actions are corrective and educational, and perhaps purifying, to read the commentators it does not seem that this is their tone. To be sure actions have consequences, and the universe reacts to restore balance when that balance is upset. In this case, I think we are seeing Gd’s reaction to the underlying constellation of events that led up to Moshe’s striking the rock. Torah testifies that Moshe was on an unparalleled spiritual level: there never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe (Deut 34:10). When he tells Gd that he cannot provide the people with meat, it wasn’t due to a lack of livestock – Reuven and Gad had huge herds. He was saying that his spiritual level was so divorced from the level of “flesh”/meat that he couldn’t even relate to the request. This was apparently the problem at the rock – Gd and Gd’s Providence was so clear to Moshe that he couldn’t grasp how far it was to most of the people. This was not the kind of leadership that was needed in the Land. Moshe’s mission was accomplished, and Gd lovingly tells him (in parashat v’Etchanan, read right after Tisha B’Av, a time of consolation): Enough, don’t ask any more to enter the Land, you have already earned a much greater reward, and it is now time to come home, into the real, eternal Promised Land.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Chukat

In this parshah, Miriam dies, the well that follows her dries up, the people complain, Gd tell Moses to speak to a rock and water will come out of it, Moses strikes the rock instead and Gd denies him entrance to the Promised Land for his disobedience — there are different rabbinical theories about why Gd denies Moses entrance but Torah is very clear that Gd did deny Moses entrance.

Does that mean that Moses has lost his chance for teshuvah, return to primordial Oneness?

Put it another way: when Moses is denied entry to the physical land of Canaan, Eretz Israel, does that mean he’s also denied entrance to the spiritual Promised Land, the land of fully developed awareness?

I think no. Let us see what we can find in Torah and in this parshah that supports this view, not only for Moses but for every generation, including our own and all future generations.

*Be Thou holy”:
Gd has many times said, “Be thou Holy, for I Am Holy”(for example, Leviticus 11:44) and given many directions that suggest how this can be done; for example, “Love Gd with all thy heart and all thy soul”. This Love is something Moses clearly has: even when he pleads with Gd to give forgiveness to wrongdoers, Moses is loving Gd with all his heart and soul, pleading for the life of people who are Expressions of Gd, even though Gd is seeming to hide within them, even though they seem to be unaware that they are the Whole hidden in Its Exprssions. “Loving Gd” is something that clearly doesn’t depend on entering the physical Promised Land.

Gd earlier in Torah (Numbers 12:8) describes Moses as someone with whom Gd speaks mouth to mouth, clearly, not in riddles.

What will make the physical Promised Land a spiritual place will be the ease with which people can perceive Gd’s Presence in it: since Moses is already in Gd’s Presence (and serves as the physical body through whom Gd’s Voice speaks to the people) Moses is already living in the spiritual Promised Land even though he cannot enter the physical Promised Land.

Teshuvah, return to Oneness, requires going beyond the struggle between opposites; for example, seeing that Gd is within Egypt (restrictions), within the wilderness/desert (freedom) and within the Promised Land (freedom along with restrictions). Experiencing that All is One requires perceiving Gd in All. When Gd denies Moses entrance into the physical Promised Land, He is forcing Moses to experience freedom within restrictions: to accept the restriction of not entering the physical Promised Land and to find freedom within that restriction. Gd is the Restrictor and the Restriction is Filled with Gd’s Presence. Gd is setting up the condition in which Gd as Gd begins to reveal himself fully to Gd, playing the role of Moses, begins to reveal Himself as Unlimited, and his Moses role begins no longer to be lost in weeping over the lost, exulting over gain, but begins to perceive itself as the Wholeness that flows in Streams of Loss and Gain, of Weeping and Exulting.

The same thing happens to us: Gd hides within each of us, playing the role of the limited people that we are and he may sometimes give us restrictions that force our limited self to surrender, open to Gd within our self, as Gd – always Gd, always Whole, always One – begins to soften the limits and to reveal that we are what we always are: One!

Baruch HaShem