Between the Lines—Hukkat

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

במדבר רבה (וילנא) פרשה יט

לכן לא תביאו משל למה"ד לשתי נשים שלוקות בבית דין אחת קלקלה ואחת אכלה פגי שביעית אמרה להם אותה שאכלה פגי שביעית בבקשה מכם הודיעו לבריות על מה אני לוקה שלא יאמרו אף אני קלקלתי הביאו פגי שביעית ותלו עליה ואמרו זו קלקלה ולקתה וזו אכלה פגי שביעית ולקתה אף כך אמר משה רבינו הרי גזרת עלי למות במדבר עם הדור הזה שהכעיסוך שנאמר (תהלים עח) כמה ימרוהו במדבר יעציבוהו בישימון ועכשיו יאמרו לדורות שאני כמותם יכתב עלי על מה נענשתי לפיכך כתב יען לא האמנתם.

Numbers 20:2

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them."

Numbers Rabbah 19:12

To what is the matter compared? To the case of two women who were about to be flagellated in court, one having acted immorally and the other having eaten some unripe figs of the Sabbatical year. Said she who had eaten the unripe figs of the Sabbatical year to the members of the court: "I pray you, let people know why I am being flagellated, so that they shall not suppose that I also have acted immorally." They brought some unripe figs of the Sabbatical year and hung them upon her, saying: "That woman is being flagellated for having acted immorally, and this one is being flagellated for having eaten unripe figs of the Sabbatical year." So also did Moses our Teacher say: "Behold, You have decreed that we should die in the wilderness with this generation who have provoked You; as it says, 'How often did they rebel against Him in the wilderness, and grieve Him in the desert!' (Ps. 78:40). "And now, future generations will say that I was like them. Let the reason why I have been punished be recorded about me." Accordingly He wrote: Because you did not trust Me enough . . .

The feminist in me rolls her eyes: did the rabbis really have to pick two women to demonstrate their point? They are building on the prophetic tradition of comparing the wayward B'nai Israel with a wayward wife; but the feminist rolls her eyes at that too. Setting the feminist concern aside, the midrash is wonderfully insightful about our human need for legacy. Call it vanity or the mantle of leadership: what other people think matters to us.

The one who committed a "ritual" sin, eating unripe figs during the Sabbatical year (when you are to wait until they have fully ripened), wants it to be known that her sin is categorically different from that of her counterpart. The Hebrew translated here (per Soncino) as "acted immorally" is kil'k'lah, which literally means "to spoil, ruin, or rot." Her sin is unspecified but it is something rotten. She whose sin was a simple momentary lapse of respect for God's rules about the Sabbatical year does not want anyone to confuse her with the one who acted immorally, whose behavior was spoiled and rotten.

So too Moses, and so too us. The midrash comes in answer to a mysterious tendency of the text to refer to the entire generation's punishment without singling out Moses. The verse in Psalms is one such example: "How often did they rebel against Him in the wilderness." But, the midrash imagines that Moses does not want anyone to confuse his sin—the momentary lapse of faith—with the more egregious sins of the others who received the same punishment he did. So too with those of us who struggle to live morally upright lives. We all make mistakes, we all have our momentary lapses of judgment. Call it vanity or call it a sense of our own role as leaders in our circles: what other people think matters to us,g and, as we write the book of our lives, we hope that the detailed reasons for why we did what we did are included as part of our legacy.