Commentary on Hukkat

14 Jun

This week, it finally happens: Moses loses his cool.  He has had to deal with a disastrous military defeat at Hormah, the rebellion of Korach and his followers, the incessant whining and complaining of the Israelites, and now the death of his sister Miriam.  Tradition tells us God gave the Israelites one gift for survival on the merit of their three leaders.  On the merit of Moses, God gave them the mana to eat.  On the merit of Aaron, God gave them the pillar of cloud to guide them on their journey, and on the merit of Miriam, God gave them Miriam’s Well, which would follow them around, providing an abundant supply of water in the unforgiving desert.

Now that Miriam has died, the well has disappeared, and the people immediately start complaining about the lack of water.  God commands Moses and Aaron to assemble the people and speak to a rock, which will cause water to flow from that rock.  Moses and Aaron assemble the congregation, and Moses berates the people.  He says “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” and then, rather than talk to the rock as God had proscribed, Moses strikes the rock with his staff.  Water flows from the rock anyway, but Moses is punished for disobeying God’s orders by being prohibited from entering the Promised Land.

The Rabbis have often debated why it is that Moses disobeyed God and hit the rock rather than speaking to it.  Based on everything Moses has been going through, it certainly seems possible that he did it out of frustration, but based on both Moses’ diatribe towards the Israelites and the harshness of his punishment, it seems possible that Moses disobeyed God because he did not want the Israelites to have water just yet.  He wanted them to first grieve for his sister as the spiritual leader she was, rather than treat her as just a source of water.

From Moses’ point of view, which we often take, we can see why he would feel this way, but a good leader and judge needs to put aside his or her own feelings and see things from all points of view.  For the Israelites, suddenly being cut off from their main source of water in the middle of the desert was a life-threatening concern.  In his personal grief, Moses lost sight of the basic needs of others and reacted harshly, and thus he was punished by God.  Moses does seem to eventually learn his lesson, as the midrash states that God returned the gifts of Aaron and Miriam, the guiding pillar of cloud and the well, on the merit of Moses alone.  (The Israelites seem to learn their lesson, too, as they mourn for Aaron for thirty days after his death later in this parshah).

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