Moses’s Misstep: Words Not Deeds

Hukkat By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Jun 27, 2014 / 5774

With the loss of both Miriam and Aaron, Parashat Hukkat marks a liminal and tragic point in the Israelite wanderings toward the Land of Israel. In the aftermath of Miriam’s death, however, a dearth of water strikes the Israelites. They cry out in great thirst, and God turns to Moses, giving him explicit instructions for solving the people’s misery. Moses must take his rod and speak to a rock. Counter to these directions, Moses strikes the rock, and water pours forth. Moses is then severely punished by being barred from Israel. The exegetical query that has and continues to plague Bible commentators is that of identifying the precise transgression that leads to this severe decree against Moses. A parallel story appears in Exodus 17. And there Moses indeed strikes the rock, leading us to believe that his misstep in this week’s parashah must be something other than “hitting” the rock. What is the precise crime that warrants such a dramatic punishment?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch identifies one possibility among many. He writes,

At God’s command, Moses took the staff again in his hand out of the Sanctuary where it had reposed for nearly forty years, and with this badge of his mission coming from God, he assembled the nation. But when, after nearly forty years, he saw himself directed to the people with the staff of God again in his hand, the staff which nearly forty years ago he had required for the people as testimony and credential of his mission (see Exodus 4:1–15), it hurt him grievously to think that in all these forty years, and with all that he had done in those forty years, he had still not won the confidence and trust of his people, and in the bitterness of these feelings he forgot his orders, and spoke, instead of quietly addressing the rock, words of deep reproach to the people (calling them ha-morim, “rebels”), and in passionate agitation struck the rock—whereupon water in abundance gushed forth and satisfied the thirst of the people and their animals. (Commentary on Numbers, 368–9)

Hirsch’s explanation is insightful. He pins Moses’s offense on his growing impatience with the Israelites. Quite beautifully, Hirsch gives us a sensitive window into the soul of Moses—the angst with which he has wrestled as well as how his leadership has been pushed to its limits by Israelite behavior. For Hirsch, it is because Moses speaks to the people in a denigrating and harsh way (calling them “rebels” in Numbers 20:10) that, ultimately, he must pay the high price of not entering the Promised Land.

Joseph Bekhor Shor, the medieval exegete from France, adds his own complementary insight by highlighting the second half of Numbers 20:10: Moses’s transgression lay not in calling the Israelites rebels but in saying to them, “Shall we get water for you from this rock?” instead of “Shall God bring forth water from this rock?” By substituting himself and Aaron in the place of God, he gave the impression of diminishing God’s role in this miracle.

May we learn to respect others through polite language (even in moments of anger and impatience), and may we always be cognizant of God’s creative and miraculous role in the world.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torahare made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.