July 20, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Chukat

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” –Numbers 20:12


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz
Adat Shalom, “Roadmap Jerusalem” filmmaker

Faith alone does not hold the same weight in Judaism that it does in other religions. More than a religion of faith, Judaism is a religion of action in the form of mitzvot or commandments. So it can’t be Moses and Aaron’s lack of faith — “because you did not believe in Me” — that prompts their severe punishment. It appears rather that the problem is Moses and Aaron “did not believe in Me to sanctify Me.” The infamous striking of the rock occurs without sanctification, without the speech Moses is instructed to add only sentences earlier. 

Herein lies the lesson for us all: God judges us by our actions, not by our beliefs. This is why we recite blessings with speech, we perform acts of chesed (loving-kindness), and we rejoice in song and dance. And if our behavior is what matters most, then there is always hope for us to correct our behavior. 

For each of us, there is a mitzvah that we have not yet performed. As we approach the last several months before the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of teshuvah (repentance), I pray that each of us is able to find a new mitzvah to fulfill. This can be as simple as reciting a new blessing or as complicated as kashrut. May each of us find a new action that sanctifies God, ourselves and the world around us. It will not be easy but it will definitely be worthwhile — b’hatzlacha! May you have success!

Sara Brudoley
Torah teacher and lecturer

Commonly accepted among the righteous is the Rule of Faith and Trust. Sometimes it is necessary to make an effort, and sometimes no effort is required. All depends on the level of one’s faith, which must rise to the level of trust. When trust in HaShem is great and clear, no effort is necessary to achieve salvation. 

The Holy Zohar comments on meaning the verse “Trust in HaShem and do good, so that you shall dwell in the land” (Psalms 37:3): The main power to merit the land of Israel is through the attribute of trust. In light of this fact, we can explain the sin at the waters of Meribah. When Moshe was instructed to speak to the rock in order to yield water, it meant complete trust without any effort. 

Moshe thought the Israelites had a very low level of trust, and thus needed some effort, so he hit the rock, not once but twice, indicating extra effort. 

That was not however, HaShem’s intention. He wanted to show His love and closeness to the nation, even at their low level. He therefore commanded Moshe to speak to the rock, indicating absolute faith and trust, to instill into the nation that they could feel complete trust in HaShem. He would give them water in the desert and later, the land. Moshe’s fault was that he felt the Israelites were incapable of such trust. He was therefore punished by not leading the people into the land. (Based on “Netivot Shalom” of Slonim)

David Brandes
Writer, producer

Did God set up Moses to sin at the waters of Meribah? 

The narrative tells us after Moses’ beloved sister Miriam died, there was no water. The people were angry with Moses. God instructed Moses to take the staff and speak to the rock. Moses hit the rock instead, and was harshly punished for it. 

Why did God command Moses to take the staff if he wanted him only speak to the rock? Every writer knows if you take a pistol out in the first act, you’ve got to use it by the third. 

And then there is “the rock.” The text does not say, “a rock”, but “the rock.” God had a specific rock in mind. Moses knew which of the many rocks out there it was. What was so special about this rock? 

The common thread here seems to be the Miriam’s death. She was closely identified symbolically with water. Saving Moses from the Nile. Leading the people in song at the splitting of the Red Sea. The name Miriam itself means sea of sorrow. … Moses was grieving. The symbols around him shouted, “Miriam!” Did God manipulate his distress to set him up? Was his punishment fair? 

I have no answer. But I do know a beautiful Midrash that might illuminate. This same rock, flowing with water, continued to follow the Jews through the desert. Once in the Promised Land, the rock traveled north where it settled, and became the source of the Sea of Galilee.

Rabbi Hillary Chorny
Cantor, Temple Beth Am

There was a time, not so very long ago at all, when our older kid was still in diapers. She is a bright, articulate child with the presence of mind to defend all her actions. So when my husband told her it was time to use the bathroom, she turned up her nose and said with a great deal of exasperation, “Abba, you know I’m not potty-trained!” If one more person said to us, “She won’t walk down the aisle in diapers,” I was ready to send them home with said child. 

I will always be grateful to her pediatrician for understanding that we needed much more compassionate directions. The doctor said, “Listen to her. She’s giving you every signal in the world that she isn’t ready.” 

The Chizkuni points to God’s language in verse 12 as indicative of the divine certitude that Moshe will not enter the land. “Lakhen,” wrote the Chizkuni, is the language of oath, leaving Moshe no room to argue against the decree or make teshuvah. When God uses the word “lakhen,” there’s no turning back. 

Each of us has our own language to underscore that we are standing our ground. To be in an intimate relationship with someone means, in part, understanding when “no” truly means no, and when it means not yet. 

Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Motivational speaker

In this week’s parsha, we read about arguably the most famous act of HaShem’s retribution, and it happens to His beloved prophet Moses. HaShem denies Moses his life dream of leading the Jewish people into Israel because “… you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel …” 

Much ink has been spilled by our commentators in interpreting this
verse, but by all accounts, it appears that Moses either made a mistake or failed to follow the explicit instructions of the Almighty. Of note, and the point I would like to underscore, is that while the Torah makes no attempt to justify Moses’ behavior or bury this incident in some parenthetical comment, the very same Torah also makes it unequivocally clear that Moses is considered the greatest person in Jewish history, and that there will never be a person who attains greater spiritual heights than Moses. The fact that the Torah unapologetically highlights the incident of Moses striking rather that speaking to the rock, while also praising his unsurpassed greatness, is a vital life lesson for all of us, especially living in these times. 

The greatest people are also fallible, and everyone makes mistakes or fails in areas of their lives. Great people face the same obstacles as we all do and they, too, stumble and fall. To attain greatness however, we have to grow from our setbacks rather than be defined by them.