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Eighteen Answers – Parshat Chukat

It’s a big week in parshanut.

Now of course, the whole enterprise of parshanut – Torah commentary – is founded on asking questions about the Biblical text. But there are certain questions that are legendary in the genre – questions that have plagued scholars for centuries.

The story goes like this: The people are – once again – complaining. They are hungry, and thirsty, This week we run into one of the classics:

“What did Moses do that was so wrong?”and wishing they’d never left Egypt. In fact, they actually say they wish they’d rather have died back there.

So Moses and Aaron nervously take the matter to God, Who instructs them to raise their staff to convene the people, and then order a rock to produce water, which – God says – it will then miraculously do.

But when everyone had gathered together, Moses suddenly loses his temper and says, Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you from this rock?!” and then strikes the rock with the staff, twice. And it works! Water starts flowing out of the rock, enough for all the people and their animals to drink.

But there seems to be a big problem. Because now God is angry, and proceeds to deliver Moses and Aaron a devastating punishment:

Because you did not believe in Me enough to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them. (Numbers 20:12)

יַעַן לֹאהֶאֱמַנְתֶּם בִּי, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי לְעֵינֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵללָכֵן, לֹא תָבִיאוּ אֶתהַקָּהָל הַזֶּה, אֶלהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁרנָתַתִּי לָהֶם.

That’s right. Moses – God’s trusted servant, the greatest prophet who ever lived, the hero of the Torah, who led the people out of Egypt and watched over them for forty years in the desert, defending them tirelessly as they gave him nothing but grief – is now denied entry into the promised land. He will take the people all the way there, but never make it in himself. Instead, he will die on the border, and get left behind, all alone.

It seems so unfair. So cruel. So wildly out of proportion with what Moses did.

But then, that’s the question. What did Moses do, exactly? How did he not “sanctify” God?

What in the world going on here?

That is the question. And out of it springs a whole universe of parshanut. Now, most weeks, I bring you a selection of some of the major answers to whatever question we are looking at, and then focus in on one or two particularly rich commentaries. But this week, I want to do something different. Because I want you see what can happen when the commentators come upon a real doozy of a question. I want you to get a sense of just how vast the catalog of attempts to reckon with one problem in the Torah can be.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at – as the saying goes – “how much ink has been spilled” trying to solve this problem. Here then, is a brief history – chronologically arranged – of (just some of) the answers to the question, “What did Moses do to deserve it?”

1. Rashi (France, 1040-1105) – We always start with Rashi, the Father of the Commentators. And his answer is simply that Moses hit the rock instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. So he disobeyed the order.

2. Ibn Ezra (Spain, 1089-1167) – The problem wasn’t the striking of the rock per se, but the fact that Moses hit it twice. The first time he hit it out of anger, so it did not produce water. So then he had to hit it again to fulfill God’s wishes, and at that point it worked. But that repetition made it look like God was less powerful, and could not produce the water in one try.

3. Maimonides (Spain 1135 – Egypt 1204) – The problem was not with the rock and the water at all, but in the fact that Moses lost his temper. That was a sin in and of itself, but especially so when he was acting as God’s representative, because he made God look angry and unmerciful.

4. Nachmanides (Spain, 1194-1270) – Borrowing from the 10th-century Rabeinu Chananel, he says that Moses made the mistake of saying “Shall we get water for you from this rock,” instead of “Shall God get water for you,” making it look like he was actually performing the miracle instead of God.

5. Bechor Shor (France, 12th-century) – Moses just didn’t explain properly to the people what was happening.

6. Rabbeinu Bachya (Spain, 1255-1340) – Earlier (in Exodus 17), they had produced water from a rock by hitting it once. Now, by hitting it twice, Moses made it look like God’s power had weakened since those days.

7. Rabbi Joseph Albo (Spain, 1380-1444) – Moses should have believed enough in God that he didn’t even have to ask, but simply called out for a miracle himself, and known that God would deliver.

8. Don Isaac Abravanel (Portugal, 1437-1508) – They aren’t actually being punished for this, but for previous sins (Moses for sending the spies, Aaron for making the golden calf). But God uses this event as a pretext to finally address those crimes without having to shame Moses and Aaron by bringing up the past.

9. Seforno (Italy, 1475-1550) – Moses and Aaron deliberately lessened the miracle from something totally supernatural (speech producing water) to something that seemed semi-natural (somehow they were able to strike the rock in such a way that it released water), because they didn’t think the people were worthy of a full-blown miracle.

10. Maharal (Prague, 1520-1609) – The fact that they displayed anger simply showed that they lacked faith. If they had faith, they would have performed the miracle with joy.

11. Or HaChaim (Morocco, 1696-1743) – When they said “Shall we get water for you from this rock,” they made it sound like water could only come from that particular rock, as if it were a magic rock, instead of making it clear that God could produce water from any rock.

12. HaKetav V’HaKabbalah (Germany, 1785-1865) – Their job was to teach the people theology. They should have explained carefully the nature of God’s power to create something from nothing, instead of just performing the act itself.

13. Kedushat Levi (Poland, 1740-1809) – In calling the people “rebels,” he humiliated them, and in doing so, missed the opportunity to bring them into a higher spiritual consciousness, a greater awareness of the kindness of God.

14. Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) – When Moses heard God ask him to take his staff and raise it up, he assumed that he needed the staff as proof of his credibility (as he did 40 years before when he first led the people out of Egypt) and he was hurt because he assumed the people still did not trust him. So instead of just raising the staff, he bitterly smashed it against the rock.

15. HaEmek Davar (Lithuania, 1816-1893) – They should have led the people in prayer before they performed the miracle, to show that God was answering their prayers.

16. Meshech Chochmah (Latvia, 1843-1926) – Because Moses made it appear that he had performed the miracle himself, God was worried that the people would come to worship Moses in the land of Israel as a deity.

17. Sefat Emet (Poland,1847-1905) – This was not a punishment at all, but a proof that the people were unable to deal with Moses’ harsher style of leadership. Because Moses saw the divine vision clearly, he felt no need to explain it to people, to “speak” things out to them as he was supposed to speak to the rock. His hitting the rock instead represented his more rigid kind of leadership, which God now realized the people would not be able to handle in the land of Israel.

18. ParshaNut (United States, 1976 – present) To all of these answers, perhaps we can add one of our own. Maybe the sin had nothing to do with the incident at the rock at all. Maybe God was upset that when the people complained, Moses and Aaron had immediately come to God looking for a quick solution. Instead, they should have taken the opportunity to assure the people that God would take care of them somehow, as God had all these years. They should have encouraged faith, and thus “sanctified” God in the eyes of the people. Instead they went begging for a miracle.

Eighteen is a good Jewish number, so we’ll stop here, though we could surely go on and on.

So how do we choose among them? Which is the right answer?

Well, maybe one of the above answers seems better to you than all the others. Or maybe you can come up with a different solution to the problem. But there is a more important point here about how we read parshanut. Whenever we are confronted with a case like this in the Torah, which seems to have prompted every commentator in history to come up with a new answer to an old question, one thing is clear: The question is better than the answers.

And in this case, the underlying question is one of the most difficult theological problems of all: Why do the righteous suffer?

Why do good people receive greater punishment than they seem to deserve? Why does God seem so merciless? Why is there no order to the world of pain and pleasure, reward and punishment?

Why is Moses left outside to die?

There are a million answers. But really, there are no good answers.

I like to think, however, that somehow Moses is comforted by all of our efforts to make sense of his death. Wherever he lies, perhaps the words of all the commentaries throughout the centuries have reached him, and wrapped around him, holding him like a shroud of woven letters.

I hope he knows that we have never forgotten him, and that we are still trying to figure this all out.

About Rabbi David Kasher

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