Parshat Chukat: Moses’ big mistake

Cantor Nancy Ginsberg
Cantor Nancy Ginsberg (Scott Schechter)

By Cantor Nancy Ginsberg

Parshat Chukat has one of the most perplexing, even disturbing, passages in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Israelites for 40 years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land.

No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses — the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes, who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God.

Almost 40 years have passed since the Exodus. Most of the generation who remembered Egypt have died. So too had Miriam, Moses’ sister. The people are now close to their destination. In their new encampment, however, they find themselves without water. They complain. The petulance is all too familiar. The Israelites have hardly deviated from it throughout.

God counsels Moses and Aaron to speak to the rock so that it will bring forth water for the community. However, rather than using his words, Moses takes his staff and hits the rock, not once, but twice. The people now have water to drink, but their leaders are reprimanded for not obeying God exactly. We learn that because they did not publicly show faith in God’s enabling them to provide water through the utterance of words, Moses and Aaron’s punishment was severe: They were denied entry to the Promised Land.

Rashi, offering the simplest and best-known explanation, says that Moses’ sin lay in striking the rock rather than speaking to it. Had Moses done as he was commanded, the people would have learned an unforgettable lesson: “If a rock, which neither speaks nor hears nor is in need of sustenance, obeys the word of G-d, how much more so should we.” Ramban in his commentary says the actual sin was hubris: “Can we draw water for you from this rock?” implying that they, Moses and Aaron, had the power to perform the miracle. Rambam blames it on Moses’ anger and name-calling. Abarbanel attributes the punishment to past sins: Moses’ sin of the spies and Aaron’s participation in the Golden Calf.

Whatever the reason, it is now 38 years of wandering in the desert, most of the generation that came out of Egypt is gone. And yet, they longed for an Egypt they had never seen or only barely remembered but still preferred the imagined comforts of the land of slavery to the trials of liberty. So maybe the faith that Moses and Aaron broke was their faith in the continuity of God’s promise to an undeserving and rebellious people. As leaders they were responsible for their actions and the consequences that came with those actions.

Miriam is dead; soon Aaron will join her, and so will Moses before the end of that year. A new set of younger leaders will take their places to guide the new generation of the people into the Promised Land.

Cantor Nancy Ginsberg is the manager of pastoral ministries at Oak Crest Village in Parkville. Oak Crest is a vibrant community managed by Erickson Senior Living®, one of the nation’s largest and most respected networks of continuing care retirement communities. The 87-acre Oak Crest campus is located in the heart of Baltimore County.

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