No Single Solution
At its essence, Parashat Hukkat brims with questions and mystery. From its opening with the curious purification ritual of the “red heifer” to the water crisis at Kadesh to the bizarre copper serpent of Moses, we seem to be wrestling with far more queries than answers. One of the most cryptic episodes of this week’s parashah is connected to drought in the immediate aftermath of Miriam’s death. The People rise up against Moses and Aaron, demanding water to drink. Moses and Aaron “fall on their faces.” God tells Moses to take his brother Aaron, rod in hand, assemble the community, and speak to the rock. Moses strikes the rock, water flows, and God punishes Moses. God turns to Moses and Aaron, declaring, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you will not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). What was Moses’s egregious act that he deserves such a severe punishment?
Rabbi Shmuel Avidor Hacohen explains,
Many commentators exhausted themselves in an effort to understand why this excessive punishment is levied against Moses for striking the rock rather than speaking to it. Clearly, Moses intended good as he wanted to bring quenching waters his people; he struck the rock exactly as he had done before immediately after the Israelites left Egypt . . . Torah, however, is coming to teach us that a leader who ceases believing in the power of the spoken word, who fails to believe in his power or persuasion, and who begins to raise his voice forcefully in place of rational explanations, is no longer fit to lead the Israelites into the Land of Israel. The ethical authority of a leader ceases the moment a leader begins to use violence and force; and it is for this reason that Moses is punished. The purpose is to demonstrate a vital lesson to future generations and leaders: when it is possible to achieve one’s goal through the spoken word and through explaining one’s self, it is forbidden to use coercion, force or the power of the stick (Likrat Shabbat [trans. from the Hebrew], 161–162).
Too often, in the heat of a moment, we resort to force, power, or coercion. Even when we are impatient with others and feel that we are indeed fully “in the right,” as wise leaders we must take a step back, decompress, and use healing words that bring about a constructive resolution. Moses tragically missed his opportunity—and even more tragically, it led to the loss of his redemptive moment of bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land.
While thoughtful, rational words are important, it is also vital to learn another lesson. Whereas striking the rock “worked” in the immediate aftermath of the Exodus, it failed Moses in this context. A leader cannot act in a simple rote, formulaic, or Pavlovian way. Solutions must be tailored to each unique circumstance. Becoming aware of the power of thoughtful words and the uniqueness of every moment ultimately allows each of us to enter a “promised land” with an even more promising future.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.