Teaching Jewish Roots
A Drop of Light from Zion


[not proofread]

Parashat Chukat – Num. 19:1-22:1

(Haftarah – Judges 11:1-33)

Shabbat shalom, my dear friends.

The Creator’s ways are mysterious. Sometimes we try to explain Him to others (or to ourselves) when we are faced with an incident that raises questions about His character. Yet the LORD has warned us through His prophet: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways.” (Isa. 55:8)

Our Torah portion (“Law”) contains one of those uncomfortable mysteries. Moses is banned from the Promised Land for what seems like unfair reasons.

The passage begins by telling us that Miriam died at Kadesh (Num. 20:1). The next verse says that “there was no water for the congregation” (v. 2). The Jewish sages concluded that the two developments were connected.

They noted that Miriam was a prophetess who had encouraged the people to praise the Creator for crossing the Sea and seeing their enemies overthrown (Exod. 15:20-21). As a young girl, she had watched over baby Moses as he floated down the Nile, and she had bravely approached the daughter of Pharoah to reunite him with their mother (Exod. 2:4-8). Because of these water-linked events that revealed Miriam’s great faith, a tradition arose in Talmudic times (or perhaps earlier) that the water for the people of Israel in the desert came from a supernatural source called “Miriam’s Well”. Besides giving physical water, this Well symbolized the spiritual water that Miriam was known to provide – the hope, joy, and awareness of GOD’s presence, without which the people could not have endured. The same water symbolism is repeated throughout the Scriptures (Isa. 35:6-7, Isa. 41:17-18, Isa. 44:3, etc.).

Miriam’s Well was associated with one recognizable rock, first revealed at Horeb as Israel’s water source (Exod. 17:6). For 40 years “the Rock” (Heb: ha-sela) somehow moved with the nation through the desert (Deut. 8:15, Ps. 105:41, Neh. 9:15). If this sounds strange, remember that the Pillar of Cloud and the daily showers of Manna did the same. Either the Rock emerged from the ground wherever they camped, causing water to spring up from below; or it marked the place where digging would release an underground reservoir (Num. 21:17-18 suggests both).

The Rock was still there when Miriam died, but apparently its water stopped after she was buried. When Moses turned to GOD for a solution, he was commanded to revive the water in a specific way: “Speak to the Rock before their eyes, that it shall yield its water.” (Num. 20:8) Instead, Moses struck the Rock twice (v. 11). As a result, he and Aaron lost their most cherished dream: “Since you did not trust in Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, for that reason you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (v. 12)

Let’s be honest. We can’t help but wince at the Divine verdict. We’ve seen in previous chapters how much abuse Moses endured from the people, and yet he kept faithfully obeying the Creator. Now they were again accusing him of seeking their death, conveniently ignoring the LORD’s participation: “Why then have you brought the LORD’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our livestock to die here? Why did you make us come up from Egypt, to bring us into this wretched place?” (v. 4-5) To punish the innocent target of their complaints seems like the worst response possible.

The circumstances further arouse our sympathy. As Moses and Aaron were mourning the loss of their sister, how could they not lose patience with the selfish cruelty of the accusations? And since the water came forth anyway (v. 11), how much did Moses’s small deviation from the command really matter? After all, at Horeb he had been told to strike the rock, so it wasn’t outrageous for him to repeat this method. Perhaps in his grieving for Miriam, he only half-heard the instructions.

But because GOD is perfectly just, we are not free to reject His decision. Usually, we take refuge in two alternatives. We insert our own ideas into the story, in order to make the Holy One’s actions digestible for human understanding. Or, we quote Isaiah 55:8 (see above), and accept it as an unsolvable riddle, due to GOD’s inscrutable ways.

The first alternative typically blames Moses for calling the people “rebels” in a fit of temper, and/or for striking the Rock in frustration. It’s true that having endless patience for endless complaining was an impossible assignment for any human leader. But (says this argument) Moses and Aaron were the people’s direct line to GOD, and they could not afford the luxury of human weakness. Thus, the LORD punished them for not showing more patience and mercy to His beloved Bride Israel, with whom He made a holy Covenant. This is derived from GOD’s charge that “you [Moses] did not treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel” (Num. 20:12).

Another version proposes that GOD was angry with Moses for mistreating the Rock by striking it instead of speaking to it. This is based on Scriptures (Deut. 32:1, Josh. 24:26-27, Ezek. 36:1-12) indicating that the rocks of the earth are able to hear, remember and obey His words. Moses was therefore punished for not setting an example of holiness by treating the stones as spiritual partners rather than dumb objects.

These explanations fall short. The first one portrays the LORD as a heartless tyrant, who expects His leaders to show super-human self-control, at all times, regardless of the provocation. The second one implies that He doesn’t protect His most faithful servants from abuse, but He does it for desert rocks! They do violence to the reputation of our all-loving Father in Heaven, who “has compassion on those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:13).

The second alternative, to not attempt any explanation at all, seems safer. But if GOD’s ways were completely unknowable, we wouldn’t have Scriptures repeatedly telling us that we can learn them (Ps. 25:9, Ps. 27:11, Ps. 86:11, among others). Every bit that we learn will enable us to trust Him more and obey Him better.

Specifically, the Torah contains “wonderful things” that can be seen only when the Creator opens our eyes to them (Ps. 119:18). May He do so now, as we look more closely at the relevant passages and seek to apply them in our spiritual lives.

Thankfully, the above-mentioned interpretations cannot withstand a careful reading of what the Scriptures say about this incident.

We start with what Moses said and did: “‘Listen now, you rebels! Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff.” (Num. 20:10-11) And here is GOD’s response: “You did not trust in Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.” (v. 12) 

Generations later, the Spirit-inspired Psalmist revisited this story:

“They also provoked wrath at the waters of Meribah, so that it went badly for Moses on their account. For they were rebellious against His [GOD’s] Spirit, and he [Moses] spoke rashly with his lips.” (Ps. 106:33) That last part uses the Hebrew term for a sin identified in Torah (Lev. 5:4).

We see why the Creator said nothing to Moses about his attitude towards the people. On the contrary, in calling them “rebels,” he only spoke the truth. If anything, the LORD was more “disgusted” with that generation than Moses was (Ps. 95:8-11). Therefore, his words, “Listen now, you rebels….” were not “rash” at all.

Some have suggested that Moses’s rashness was in taking credit for bringing the water from the Rock. However, the LORD Himself said, “So you shall bring water for them out of the Rock.” (Num. 20:8) Thus, he did not sin in saying, “Listen now, you rebels! Shall we bring water for you…?”

Also notice that the LORD said nothing about Moses abusing the Rock. If hitting it was disrespectful, he would not have been commanded explicitly to strike it at Horeb (Exod. 17:6). Rather, GOD faulted Moses for his attitude towards Himself: “You did not… treat Me as holy” in the sight of Israel.

This leads us to the likely place where Moses “rashly” spoke: “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” No longer did he speak of “the” Rock (ha-sela), which was uniquely set apart (the meaning of “holy”) like the Cloud and the Manna, to represent the One and Only Source of eternal life. Now Moses’s goal was to quiet the people’s complaints by using “this” rock (ha-sela ha-zeh), as though it resembled other rocks that could serve the same purpose.

What about us? Do we proclaim the One and Only Source of Life to the world? “The LORD is my Rock [sela] and my Fortress!” (2 Sam. 22:2, Ps. 31:3, Ps. 71:3) Or are we trying to use the Creator as just one source of many to meet our needs? Isn’t that a failure to trust in Him and treat Him as holy? Could such an attitude prevent us from receiving what He promised us?

One shift of focus led to another. Moses was not commanded to speak to the people at all; he was to speak to the Rock, where the LORD’s presence waited, and simply ask for renewed water. If he said anything to Israel, it could have been: “Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will perform for you today!” (Exod. 14:13) But once he started rebuking the people, Moses forgot for just an instant that salvation belongs to the LORD. He struck the Rock, as though GOD’s help could be summoned by force, through his human effort.

When we have a crisis, do we end up talking to people who are in the same predicament as we are, instead of going (and bringing them also) to the Source of our salvation? Do we use people as a replacement for talking to the Creator? If others come to us in a crisis, do we take it on ourselves to be such a replacement?

Moses hit the Rock. Nothing happened. Was this a warning to stop and think? If he had repented at this point and spoken to the Rock, instead of persisting in hitting it until the promised water came out, could he have averted the punishment that followed? We will never know. Why was the LORD unwilling to forgive Moses for this relatively minor sin? We don’t know that either. This is where Isaiah 55:8 becomes relevant. But the application is clear.

Are we trying to convince the Creator to meet a pressing need, only to be greeted with silence? “We hope for justice, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far from us.” (Isa. 59:11) The prophet answers that the LORD is certainly able to save; the breakdown is on our end. If we are “hitting the Rock” and nothing is happening, it might be His merciful warning to stop, remember what He commanded us to do, and repent.

“Teach me to do Your will, for You are my GOD. Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground. For the sake of Your name, LORD, revive me.” (Ps. 143:10-11)

Blessings from the Most High be upon you, from the House of Good Deeds, the House of Sabra, and from the Land of Zion and the City of Jerusalem.

Your brother in faith


Mordechai ben Yakov


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