Commentary for Chukat

22 Jul

In this week’s parshah Moses is punished by God by being told that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The story of Moses’ sin is one that has bothered commentators for a long time because Moses’ sin seems both extremely trivial and yet also like such a simple and pointless mistake that there was no reason for Moses to make it. In Numbers 20:1-12 the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron that they haven no water to drink. God tells Moses and Aaron to go talk to a rock in front of the entire assembly of Israelites, and that talking to this rock will cause it to produce water. Moses and Aaron do what God says, except that instead of talking to the rock, Moses hits it with his staff instead. In Moses’ defense, hitting the rock was what God had told him to do the last time this situation happened, back in Exodus 17:1-7, but on the other hand, God did explicitly say “speak to the rock” and if God tells you to do something a certain way, it’s because Gods wants it done this particular way and you should do what God says because God knows better than you. Then again, Moses disobeying God’s orders and striking the rock instead of talking to it still produces the desired miraculous result, and surely if God were so upset at Moses’ disobedience, God would not perform the miracle on his behalf.


The conclusion that many commentators have come to is that Moses was guilty of not properly attributing the miracle to God, making it look like Moses himself had performed the miracle, and thus had to be punished. However, only the Malbim has offered any real reasoning as to why this was an issue here whereas in the previous incident in Exodus Moses did not credit God with the miracle either. Malbim points out that the word used for “rock” in Exodus is “tzur” while the word used for “rock” in this week’s parshah is “selah.” If you spell out the letters of the word “selah” and then take the middle letter of each word, you get the letters “mem,” “mem,” and “yod,” which can be rearranged to spell “mayim” the Hebrew word for water. Thus, a selah is a rock that has water inside of it (in more scientific terms, the pore spaces of the rocks are saturated with water). While all of the Israelites probably didn’t have geology degrees, they had been moving stones for the Egyptians for hundreds of years and there probably were a good number of them who would have recognized this. They would have either then accused Moses and Aaron of being charlatans or instead assumed that the power laid with Moses or his staff instead of with God (a sentiment that probably wasn’t helped by Moses’ statement, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” without specifying that the “we” in question included God as opposed to just Moses and Aaron, only added to), and as we saw with the spies a few weeks ago, a small number of people can stir up a large rebellion very quickly.


If the rock was a waterless tzur instead of a selah, this wouldn’t have been a problem, as bringing forth water from such a rock would have been rightfully viewed as a miracle instead of chicanery, and even a post-facto clarification that the miracle was due to God and not Moses or his staff would have averted the problem. Instead, Moses was careless in both his speech and his surroundings, and as a result, his attempt to elevate God opened up to ridicule. For this Moses was punished, and he serves as an example to all future Jewish leaders to do their best to understand their climate and surroundings and to choose their words carefully so as not to repeat Moses’ mistake and accidentally denigrate God. If even Moses can screw up, then so can the rest of us.

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