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 PARASHAT CHUKAT

Saturday 13th July 2024                         7th Tamuz  5784        




PARASHAT CHUKAT

Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33;

John 3:10-21


In this week’s Torah portion, we find one of the most perplexing incidents in the Torah; one which the exact explanation of has been fiercely debated by the greatest of Biblical commentators over the last millennium. Before we jump into the precise details of what transpired, allow me to provide some background.


There is a general misconception that the Jewish people wandered aimlessly around the desert for forty years prior to entering the land of Israel. This is not true. In fact, for about 38 of those 40 years the entire nation was camped near and around a place called Kadesh (Barnea), and for 19 of those years they stayed in exactly the same spot (see Bamidbar Rabbah on this week’s Torah portion 19:24).


This is not hard to understand, as anyone who has ever experienced family camping trips knows: continuously moving campsites is fraught with both marital and inter-generational conflict— guaranteeing just about everyone’s misery. Now multiply that stress by hundreds of thousands of families and it becomes readily apparent that everyone’s preference would be to stay as close to one spot as possible.


The campsite of the Israelites in the desert was, by necessity, spread out over a very large area. If you wish to visualize what it might have looked like, take a look at aerial shots of the campsite organized yearly for the “Burning Man” event in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada. This weeklong event draws about 70,000 participants each year and the area of the campsite, even as seen from the air, is significant.


Now multiply that area size by some fifty times – the amount needed to accommodate the three million or so Israelites camped for the forty years in the desert with all their belongings. It was such a large area that, according to the sages, it took three days to walk from one end of the campsite to the other. There were many separate and distinct camps within the larger encampment; each tribe had their own area and there was a special designated area for the tribe of levites who were camped around the Tabernacle at at the center of encampment.


In truth, the entire encampment was blessed by the Almighty in three distinct areas:

1) they received sustenance in the form of the daily manna

2) they lived under the Divine protection of the clouds of glory which provided a temperate environment and shielded them from the many dangers of the desert

3) they had a miraculous source of water that traveled with them throughout their time in the desert.


According to the sages there was so much water that there were streams (or perhaps canals) running in between the different sub-encampments. I always imagined it to resemble something like the canals of Venice (or the streets of S. Florida after an ordinary thunderstorm).According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 9a) the three Divine gifts— the manna, clouds of glory, and wellspring of water— were in the merit of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, respectively.

In this week’s Torah portion we find the Jewish nation nearing the end of their 40-year ordeal in the desert, and the Torah informs us of Miriam’s death; “And the entire encampment of Israelites arrived in the desert of Zin in the first month; and the people settled in Kadesh; and Miriam died and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1)


Because the waters of the wellspring were given to the Jewish people in the merit Miriam, when she died the water ceased flowing. Hence the Torah states;


“And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron.” (Ibid 20:2)


The entire congregation of Israelites came to confront Moses and Aaron regarding this impending disaster and complained bitterly about a number of things including, quite unbelievably, that Moses forced them out of Egypt. They questioned, “... and why have you brought up the congregation of the Lord into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us into this terrible place? This is no place of plants, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink." (Ibid 20:4-5)


Moses and Aaron were stunned by their litany of complaints and fall on their faces in anguish in front of the Tabernacle. Suddenly, God’s glory appeared to

The Almighty tells Moses “Take your staff and you and Aaron assemble the community by the bedrock of cliffs and speak to the cliff in their presence, and it will give forth water and it will provide water for drinking for the community and their livestock.”


Moses took the staff from before the Almighty, as he had been instructed. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation before the cliff; ‘Listen now you rebels,' shouted Moses, 'Shall we produce water for you from this cliff?’ With that, Moses raised his hand and struck the cliff twice with his staff and a huge amount of water flowed forth. God said to Moses and Aaron; ‘You did not affirm your faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites. Therefore, you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I am giving them.’” (Ibid 20:7-12).


And just like that, the Almighty decreed that neither Moses nor Aaron would merit to bring the Jewish people into the Land of Israel. This is quite shocking. Moses and Aaron, who had done everything they possibly could to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt and bring them to Israel, were suddenly banned from entering the Holy Land. What was so grievous about their actions in obtaining water from the cliff for the Israelites that warranted such a harsh punishment?


As mentioned above, there are many opinions among the famous Biblical commentators as to what Moses and Aaron had had done that was so terrible to deserve the extinguishing of their lifelong dream of entering the Land of Israel with the rest of the Jewish nation. In fact, some of Jewish history’s most well-know scholars proffer their view as to what was so egregious about what Moses and Aaron done to deserve such condemnation. For now, we will limit ourselves to examine Rashi’s understanding of this incident.


According to Rashi, their sin lay in disobeying God's command to speak to the cliff, and instead striking it (twice!) with the staff. Rashi argues that if they had spoken to the bedrock instead of hitting it, it would have been a far greater sanctification of God (See Rashi 20:12).


Rashi's understanding is difficult for many reasons. First of all, like many of the commentators ask on Rashi, perhaps speaking to the bedrock would have been a bigger miracle than hitting it. But obtaining water from a cliff bedrock by simply hitting it is an incredible miracle in and of itself. Why would not be considered a miracle that would sufficiently sanctify God? It’s hard to fathom that Moses and Aaron deserved such a severe and devastating punishment for creating a “lesser” miracle.


In Addition, this wasn’t the first time the Jewish nation was without water. When the Jews first came out of Egypt (Exodus 17:1) there was no water to drink, and the nation was exceedingly thirsty. Moses cries out to God, “What shall I do for this people? They are almost ready to stone me!” God answers Moses and tells him to approach a certain rock and and hit it so that it will give forth water. Moses does so and the water flows freely and waters the entire nation and their cattle.


What is going on here? How can hitting the rock in this week’s Torah portion be so grievous a sin if the first time God had literally told Moses to hit the nearest rock to get water? Why are Moses and Aaron punished so severely for doing the same act that they did at the Almighty’s direction when they first left Egypt?


Lastly, even if this is such a serious sin, what is the justification for banning Moses and Aaron from Israel?


If we examine the two stories carefully, we see a glaring difference. In the first story (when they first left Egypt), the Jewish nation had no water, and they were suffering terribly from thirst. In this week’s Torah portion that is not the case. Nowhere does it say that the people suffered from thirst. In fact, they had water for now, but because Miriam had died their source had ceased to produce. They were concerned about the future; what they would do for water when the current supply ran out. What they were actually suffering from was water insecurity.


There is, in fact, a big difference between demanding something through violence (hitting the bedrock) and verbally requesting something (speaking to the bedrock). The Jewish nation was on the cusp of going into the Land of Israel. The Almighty wanted Moses and Aaron to show the Israelites that the land will respond to the needs of His nation; they just need to make it aware of what they want. This would have addressed their concern about the future.


Knowing that the land would respond to their needs would have reassured them that they were being cared for and that everything would be okay.By Hitting the bedrock instead of gently asking the land to provide water, Moses and Aaron missed the opportunity to show collaborative effect of the land; that nature itself was programmed to respond to their needs. By imposing their will on the bedrock to produce water, rather than showing God’s manifest presence within nature, they didn’t sanctify God’s name properly.


Consequently, the people didn’t get a chance to see their innate connection to the land by having the presence of the Almighty in their midst.

Because this Divine revelation of God’s presence in nature is the unique attribute of the Land of Israel, Moses and Aaron, by not putting this reality on display to the people, lost their own connection to the land of Israel and were therefore barred from entering it.


(Comment: HaShem has already declared that only Joshua and Caleb out of that entire first geberation meritted entry into the Promised Land. And therefore, Moses, Miriam and Aaron could not gain entry and they too, died in the wilderness)

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