Today I read from chapter 20 in the book of Numbers. In the book of Numbers are stories about the 40 years in the desert and what happens there. The name of the parsha is Chukkat. The Hebrew word Chukkat means a ritual law. In the beginning of this parsha God gives the law of the red heifer. A perfect red heifer is sacrificed and its ashes are then mixed with water to purify anyone who has touched or been in the same room with a dead person. One commentary I read suggested that the word chukka is used for a law that does not make rational sense. In this case, I would agree with that!
The parsha ends with the story of the Israelites attempting to cross through the lands of Arad, Edom, and Bashan. The kings of these lands did not allow the Israelites to pass and there were wars, all of which were won by the Israelites. How was this possible for a group of slaves that fled Egypt with what they could carry and hardly had food to eat?
The portion of Chukkat that I read was when Moses strikes the rock and is punished by God for not following God’s instruction. Many don’t see why Moses was punished; it didn’t make sense. The story of Moses striking the rock is a pivotal and surprising story of the Torah. It is surprising because Moses is punished so severely after not obeying God’s instructions. To truly understand the emotions of the story we must understand the thought process of Moses in the situation. As we know, Moses was one of the great leaders of all time and led the Israelites back from Egypt. He had been a flawless messenger of God up to this point.
In the story, Miriam has just died and the Israelites have no water to drink. The fact that these things happen right after one another was the source of the tradition of Miriam’s well, which followed the Israelites through the desert. The people complain to Moses and Aaron, who run to God for help. God tells them to take his rod and speak to the rock in order to get water. Then Moses strikes the rock twice instead of speaking to the rock. He yells at the people saying “Here ye rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock.” While water rushes out, Moses and Aaron are punished for not sanctifying the Lord and heeding what God said.
There are two main questions that I had about this story. One, why did Moses strike the rock instead of speaking to it; and two, why did God punish Moses so harshly. Moses had worked as the messenger of God for all these years and yet he is not allowed to go the Promised Land. This is one of the harshest punishments that could have been given. This seemed overly harsh, because Moses had been a loyal servant up to this point. One commentary says it is tradition that the higher the person the harsher the punishment. Moses at that time was the highest person of all, being the messenger and to an extent the voice of God to the people. We see this today with public figures who people aspire to be like. They have to act in a better way than others and are criticized harshly.
God found Moses’ action to be horrifying. Betraying God’s word was the worst thing that anyone could do in God’s eyes. Moses was violating God’s instructions. But this is not why Moses was punished. The text says it was “because Moses did not trust God enough to affirm God’s sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” In other words, Moses did not credit God for God’s miracle, but rather took the credit himself. To God, it was between losing a most trusted servant who had betrayed God, or losing all the people. God chose the people over Moses so that all the time God spent with the Israelites would not be wasted. So, even if God didn’t want to punish Moses harshly, God had to in order to preserve the respect of the people.
So, why did Moses strike the rock instead of talking to it like God had told to him? In the story, the people of Israel complained about the lack of water and this was not the first time the people have complained. They have complained throughout the entire Torah. They have complained about leaving Egypt, wandering in the desert, having no food, and now the lack of water. All this complaining has been directed toward Moses and not God. “Why did you have to take us from the desert.” “Why did you not bring any food for us on this trip.” In this relationship between God and Moses, Moses does all the work and gets no credit.
In my opinion, Moses wanted to have the people’s faith and respect again. In the Midrash it says that the people acted with little more sense than their cattle. That means Moses had to deal with six hundred thousand people that were by today’s standards crazy. When Moses struck the rock for the first time and only a trickle of water came out they laughed at him, mocking all that he had done. Moses needed to rebuild the trust with the people that he was still leading.
So it seems to me that God grants Moses the powers to do God’s miracles and God gets all the glory. This story shows Moses’ frustration with God because Moses gets all of the anger from the people, while God is directing Moses’ actions. Moses’ anger is not only with the people, but also with God. Moses’ mind has been clouded with anger, but also sadness.
Miriam had just died. Miriam was Moses’ sister, Miriam knew the land and was able to provide water. The reason the water wasn’t a problem before was because Miriam had provided water. When Miriam died the people were unable to find water. When a family member dies, there is a time to grieve. The people didn’t give Moses this time. The people wanted Moses to get water, during one of his worst moments. Moses is already frustrated with God and the people, and now sad about Miriam’s death. Moses wasn’t thinking about what God commanded but just wanted to get the water for the people. He struck the rock because that is what he did in the book of Exodus. Sure enough it works, but now God punishes him. This act also doesn’t make obvious sense, until you think about God’s perspective, too.
The purpose of preparing a D’var Torah is to understand and discuss the parsha. Interpreting the story can give you insight and guidance in your own life. How does this story relate to me? The main thing that I took from this story that I could use in my own life is that I always need to listen carefully to directions in detail. It may be important and could help me avoid mistakes. Don’t try to take credit for what someone else has done. Try to stay calm when in front of people, even one or two. And give people time to deal with their emotions before asking things of them.
Now some questions for you: Remember, you only get to give answers not ask me questions:
1) Do you think that God gave a fair punishment and if not what punishment would you given if you were God?
2) Why do you think Moses struck the rock?
3) Do you think that this was Moses’ first and only mistake or did Moses sin at any time before the striking of the rock?