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.

Benefit of Doubt

Want to be a partner in redemption? Then don’t overlook a surprising message in this week’s parsha.

As Pharaoh and his chariots bear down upon the Israelites on the bank of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites react in two seemingly contradictory ways. First, they cry out to God. After all, it was God who had freed them from bondage by inflicting the signs and wonders upon Egypt. They had every reason to believe that God was indeed a powerful savior. And a moment later, they cry out bitterly against Moshe, accusing him of the perfidy of having brought them out of Egypt to die at the hands of the Egyptian horsemen. “What have you done to us by taking us out of Egypt?!” they screamed. “We would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert!” What a puzzling juxtaposition. Did the people believe that they had been redeemed, or didn’t they? Did they think that God had brought them here, or did they not? How were they able to discriminate between God and God’s right-hand man, appealing to the former and lashing out against the latter?

Nachmanides, among many others, set out to explain the people’s odd behavior. He suggests that while the people wholeheartedly believed that it was God who had wrought the plagues, they were much less certain that it was God who had brought them out of Egypt. The route they took out of Egypt was not the one that headed in the direction of their promised land. It was rather the route that headed off into the arid wilderness. The silent suspicion had arisen in the minds of some that God had only brought the plagues to punish the Egyptians for the their evil treatment of the slaves and to break the yoke of Israelite bondage. It was Moshe’s idea alone to lead the people out of the country, perhaps with the intention of ruling over them himself. This silent suspicion now appeared to be confirmed by the thunder of Pharaoh’s horses approaching from the rear.

The people believed in God, but not in Moshe.

I find something surprising in this — at least initially surprising. For most of us, faith in God is not a simple matter at all. Whether for intellectual, historical or experiential reasons, there are times when we struggle with faith and feel unsure about the idea of trusting in God. By contrast, there are many people whom we have implicit faith in and whom we would trust with our lives. Yet, the story of the Israelites leaving Egypt implies the opposite order of difficulty. It was faith in people that was harder for them.

The simple explanation for this is that the person in question here, namely Moshe, was not someone whom the people had long known, or whom they had chosen as a partner in trust. He was a stranger whose declared intentions were certainly good but about whose track record they knew little. In short, Moshe was to them what most of the people in our world are to us — seems nice, but who really knows?

The sage Joshua ben Prachya gave the following advice regarding these many strangers and acquaintances who populate our world: “Grant every person the benefit of the doubt.” Without being naive, assume the best about people’s intentions and be willing to take the chance of trusting others. Your life will be enriched in ways you can’t imagine. And although Joshua was addressing this teaching to us as individuals, the Exodus story instructs us to think about the teaching on a communal level as well. The culmination of Israel’s redemption, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, required us to trust Moshe’s intentions when he instructed us to march forward onto the dry seabed.

The teaching here is that no community can be redeemed through trust in God alone. A community that truly yearns for redemption must also develop the courage to trust in one another and to see the goodness in one another’s actions. When mutual suspicion and mistrust are the order of the day, Israel will struggle, no matter how strong our faith in God may be. Whether it be here at home in our multifaceted Jewish community or in the State of Israel where dividing lines of all kinds prevail, the key to redemption is belief in one another. We must learn to trust, and we must act and speak in ways that will deem us worthy of one another’s trust.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles.