Table for Five: Chukat

Did The Punishment Fit The Crime?
July 7, 2022

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

Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.

– Num. 20:11

Dr. Rachel Lerner
Dean, School for Jewish Education and Leadership at American Jewish University 

I never understood Moses’ punishment for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it. Moses didn’t quite follow the rules, but the result was the same. Why have such a severe and seemingly unrelated punishment? 

As an educator and a parent, I try to create natural consequences for poor choices. You don’t want to bring your jacket? You will be cold. You don’t do your homework? You get a bad grade on that assignment. Sometimes, behavior is correctable and sometimes, behavior shows you something about a person that cannot be changed. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks suggests that Moses hitting the rock instead of speaking to it was a repetition of his action earlier in the Exodus story. He failed to understand that a new action was needed in that moment. God had tried changing Moses’ behavior by asking him to speak to the rock, but Moses showed he could not change. 

The leadership needed to bring the Israelites into the Promised Land was not the leadership needed to take the slaves out of Egypt. Moses was no longer the right leader for the new Israelites, the descendants of the slaves. So the logical consequence of not being an adaptable leader was that God needed to find someone who was. 

David Porush
Student, teacher, and writer at davidporush.com

Chukat seems like a discouraging passage through a parched wasteland. Moses’ two sibs Aaron and Miriam die. Miriam’s Well dries up. Poisonous snakes attack. Moses loses his temper and strikes the rock. Moses begs various kings for passage through their territory, promising that neither the Israelites nor their cattle will drink their water. They refuse and some tribes even wage war on them.

 But the real message of Chukat is symbolized here. A torrent of water gushes from both the rock and Torah’s poetry. The parsha says “water” more than twenty times and alludes to it many times more. The red heifer laws tell us to bathe, cleanse, wash, sprinkle, and dip. There are wells, rivers, brooks, springs, tributaries, and wadis. There’s even a song celebrating wells!

 This verbal stream contrasts to the parched parsha that preceded it. Korach and his heated mob, burning with indignation, bring fire pans as insurrectionist weapons. A heavenly fire consumes them instead, and Aaron burns more incense to quell the plague. Korach never mentions water!

 Why are the floodgates suddenly opened here in Chukat?

 Perhaps because the Torah’s entire tale of liberated slaves is one of thirst slaked literally and spiritually. Israel is fertile with mayim chayim, the living water of sustenance and hope, as Bilam’s blessing tells us next week. Like water from a rock, Israel’s survival is the result of the laws of history and nature flowing to fulfill their destiny, miraculously.

Peretz Rodman
Head of Israel’s Masorti (Conservative) Bet Din

Moshe is annoyed. His patience has been strained by the people’s suggestion that they would have been better off among those killed in earlier misfortunes than living now in the wilderness. Such ingrates! Indignation impels Moshe to strike the rock despite clear instructions to speak to it. 

We are surprised, then, that water still flowed from the rock. Why did striking the rock, contrary to instructions, nonetheless produce results again this time? 

Verse 13 provides the answer: “These are the Waters of Merivah […] through which He affirmed His sanctity.” God was sanctified — his reputation was maintained — through the miracle of the water, despite Moshe having acted improperly. With the staff in his hand, Moshe had forced God’s hand: Were the people to be disappointed, left high and (literally) dry? What purpose would that have served? Their cynical disbelief would have appeared vindicated. 

God comes through with what needs to be done even when God’s servants make a mess of their assignment. Divine beneficence is focused first of all on what the people need. Dealing with the misdeeds of their leaders comes second, although come it does: both Moshe and Aaron are punished by being banned from entering Canaan. 

Would that our leaders learn from God’s example: the needs of the public take precedence. Scoring political points, teaching others a lesson, making an example of those who disobey authority — all these should be subordinate to serving the people wisely and well.

Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth Am 

This popular narrative of a “lesson learned” by Moshe after “striking” the rock with the rod rather than holding up the rod and his other open hand, is sudden and stark. Similar form had been instructed and followed in an earlier instance: In Exodus 7:19, God says, “Take your rod and hold your hand over the water,” after which Moses strikes va’yach the water and turns it to blood — without apparent chastening. And we remember Moshe “striking” the Egyptian taskmaster with his hand. Moshe, like a toddler learning spatial boundaries, uses his hands to get what he wants. Why is striking the rock so infuriating to God? 

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch says there is no Godliness in the rod, just a symbolic object used to show faith and devotion. But in the action of wielding the rod as a powerful wand serving the temperament of Moshe, God’s authority is challenged. Moshe is punished in this case for superseding the acknowledgment of God as the author of these events, losing the respect and trust of God and Community. May we each recognize, in our relationships, how our behaviors affect those who are supporting and loving us rather than striking down moments of growth. 

Ilan Reiner
Architect & Author of “Israel History Maps”

Much has been written about why Moses was punished in this incident and forbidden from entering the Promised Land of Israel. At the end of the day, all of the explanations have been challenged by various commentators. We don’t really know what Moses’ actual sin was. 

This story comes after many other stories in which Israel sinned, God was upset and wanted to eradicate them all, Moses begs for forgiveness, and God settles for a “reduced” punishment. However, upon reading this story carefully, you will notice that God isn’t upset with the people. In fact, it seems that God accepts their complaint as a legitimate one. It’s actually Moses who expresses anger at the people. Was it his anger? Or did he think that he was reflecting God’s anger? 

An interesting Midrash says that Moses’ sin wasn’t a specific one, but rather that he couldn’t enter Israel while the entire exodus generation perished in the wilderness. (Like a captain going down with his ship.) As he was the one who led them out of Egypt, it just didn’t seem right that only he crossed the Jordan. This notion reflects a deeper meaning of leadership responsibility. When Moses got upset with the people, he failed to understand that there’s a new generation before him. One that doesn’t want to go back to Egypt, but rather wants to inherit the Promised Land. As such, Moses was no longer fit to lead the next generation into the land of Israel.

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