Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Rambam’s Bunnies

Just after I returned from vacation, I found myself at the Playboy Mansion.

I know — that sounds redundant.

But I have a perfectly good explanation for going there, so good my wife almost believed it. I went to Playboy for the articles.

The Jewish Journal’s annual Giving issue — which you’re reading — was in the works. The mansion was hosting the 35th annual Merchant of Tennis-Monty Hall Cedars Sinai Medical Center Tennis Tournament. What better opportunity to do just a bit more field research before committing to an editorial topic?

And this is what I learned, bottom line: Maimonides was a bad reporter.

Moses ben Maimon, aka Moses Maimondes, aka Rambam, was a 12th century physician, rabbi, philosopher and scholar — a pre-Renaissance Renaissance man.

Among his most enduring ideas is his “Eight Degrees of Charity,” which to this day serves as the uber-text for all discussions on Jewish philanthropy. (Along with the “Eight Degrees of Charity,” Maimonides also gave us the “13 Principles of Faith” — like Moses and Mr. Blackwell, the man clearly understood the power of lists.)

Here’s the list in abbreviated form:

8. One gives donations grudgingly.

7. One gives less than he should, but does so cheerfully.

6. One gives directly to the poor upon being asked.

5. One gives directly to the poor without being asked.

4. The recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor does not know the identity of the recipient.

3. The donor is aware of the recipient’s identity, but the recipient is unaware of the source.

2. The donor and recipient are unknown to each other.

1. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished, by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, by extending a suitable loan or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

What’s remarkable about this list is how idealized it is. After all, the Rambam is telling us what ought to be. What is, in the world of Jewish philanthropy, is the mirror opposite.

Most Jews are mired somewhere between No. 7 and No. 8. We don’t give, or we don’t give enough.

Our tradition requires us to tithe 10 percent to people in need. Rabbis tell us it’s permissible to set aside after-tax monies, and deduct business expenses and Jewish education. (Deducting the cost of Jewish education would bring a lot of us to zero, but that’s another editorial.) Even so, I know few Jews who actually, literally tithe.

That fact alone explains why rabbis have to spend as much time kissing wealthy tuchises as Democratic presidential candidates do, why $100,000 Mercedes SUVs fill the parking lots of Jewish day schools that have to hold bake sales to pay preschool teachers a barely livable wage, and why in Los Angeles, where 51 of the 100 richest Angelenos are Jews, 47 percent of Holocaust survivors — more than 4,000 Holocaust survivors — currently live in poverty. Shame on us.

Even if we do give, and give generously, we most often do so after being asked, pleaded with, cajoled and convinced.

Why is this? Those hotshot entrepreneurs who tout being proactive in seeking out business opportunities can’t spend some time seeking out charitable ones?

As for the ideal of anonymous giving, please. We parody ourselves by putting our names on anything we pay for — trees, defibrillators, elevators, bathrooms. When the hero of Michael Chabon’s novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” lands in a renegade Jewish sect’s jail, he looks up to see a plaque: “THIS DETAINMENT CELL COURTESY OF THE GENEROSITY OF NEAL AND RISA NUDELMAN SHORT HILLS NEW JERSEY.”

And how often do we attain the Rambam’s ideal of giving anonymously to help people in need help themselves; or, higher still, to help people even before they become needy? There are ways — Jewish Free Loan, Grameen Bank, OxFam — but how much do you give them to give?

All these ideas floated around in my head as I drifted around the grounds of the Playboy Mansion. Hef — that’s what those of us invited there call him — only rents the grounds out to a handful of charities each year, and for years he has blessed Monty Hall, the philanthropist of “Let’s Make a Deal” fame, with the opportunity.

Hall, unlike Maimonides, is a realist. That’s why he is arguably one of the most successful fundraisers in Jewish communal history — one story put his fundraising gross at $1 billion over 50 years.

Hall took over the tournament begun by Dr. Robert Feder and William Morris Agency CEO Norman Brokaw. This year’s event raised nearly a half-million dollars for diabetes and pancreatic cancer research.

Guests paid dearly for the fun of playing friendly, competitive doubles matches, watching celebrities (Jon Lovitz, Paul Sorvino) do the same, nibbling some great donated food, and taking their families to the famous lair of Hugh Hefner.

That’s right, families.

Visitors are relegated to the glorious acreage of the front yard, where they can amble around the aviary and orchard and stand in front of the fountain, the French chateau-style mansion behind them. Dads posed their kids there like they were in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland. Try to go inside the mansion or behind it to the pool and infamous grotto, and guards with sledgehammers for forearms suddenly appear.

After I left, I was told, Hef came down to the courts for a moment, accompanied by two fully clothed aspiring models/actresses. But there were plenty of attractive women if, like me, you find smart, successful and charitable middle-aged Jewish women totally hot.

What Hall understands is that doctors need money for research and treatment, and the way to get it is to twist some donors’ arms, to placate others, to lure still more with images of prancing bunnies, and to provide everyone with fun, good food and a mention in the tribute journal.

Leave the noble aims to Maimonides — this is Jewish philanthropy, circa 2007.