Parashat Chukat – Erev Shabbat 18 June 2021
Week of 13-19 June 2021
Torah portion: Numbers 19:1- 22:1 Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33
Theme: Moses’ distress, impatience and anger
It is now the 40th year of wandering in the desert and the generation that left Egypt has died out. The people are again murmuring at Meribah (20:1-29); the first occasion was reported in Exodus 17:1-7. It could be two versions of the same story, but it could also be a renewed complaint against the leaders who seemed to keep Israel forever in the wilderness. The focus in this account is more on the failure of leadership. The brevity of this version raises serious questions about the sin Moses committed.
The Israelites, journeying in the desert, thirsting for water, blame Moses and Aaron for their predicament. God instructs Moses to take his staff, speak to the rock and draw water from it. Moses strikes the rock and water flows. He and Aaron are then informed that because they did not “trust and sanctify” God (20:12), they will not lead the people into the Promised Land. What precisely did they do to merit so harsh a punishment? This question has troubled commentators over the centuries. Leibowitz cites many different explanations of Moses’ sin (see pgs 236-247).
Ibn Ezra sees Moses’ fault not in his actions at the rock nor any deviation from the Divine instruction, but in his undignified reaction to the people’s grumblings (Leibowitz 242). God responds with compassion to the Israelites’ complaints that both they and their cattle will die of thirst. God’s instruction to Moses reveals that dual concern: Moses is to bring forth water from the rock and provide for “the community and their cattle” (v.8), The Torah makes the point of recounting that both “the community and their cattle drank” (v.11). Then the Israelites ‘contended with God’ (v.13). God heard their quarrel in the context of their fear of dying of thirst and responded accordingly. Moses, however, lost sight of what the people needed and why they were complaining and addressed them as “rebels.”
According to many commentators, including Maimonides (Introduction to Pirke Avot, Chap.4), Moses’ sin was his outburst of anger in front of the whole assembly berating the people and calling them “rebels” (v.10), being both disrespectful and demeaning. The Psalmist states, “They so embittered his spirit that rash words crossed his lips” (Ps 106:33). This is also the explanation given by the Sages in the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:10; Devarim Rabbah 2:2, 2:8): “Because of one utterance that Moses made he was unable to enter the Land.” Anger was considered to be self-indulgent and was strongly condemned by the rabbis of the Talmud and major Jewish thinkers (Ben David p.274).
What likely made this situation even more difficult for Moses was that he suddenly had less support. The narrative opens with the death of Miriam (20:1) Moses’ relative and partner in leading the people out of Egypt. “I sent before you, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). Miriam was the feminine voice in the leadership and now she is no longer there to nurture Moses in times of difficulty. What is significant is that the word Moses uses when he calls the people ‘rebels’ (”morim”) is spelled the same way as Miriam. Perhaps the Torah is hinting at Moses’ distress at the death of his sister.
Reflection and Discussion: 1. Why do you think that the Torah never disclosed the actual reason for Moses’ punishment?
Bibliography: Ben David, Around the Shabbat Table (New Jersey 2000); Leibowitz Studies in Bamidbar/Numbers (Maor Wallach Press, Israel); Plaut, The Torah, Modern Commentary (UAHC New York 1981); Rabbi Uziel Weingarten 2002; The African Bible (Paulines Pub. Kenya).
This week’s Parasha Commentary was prepared by
Marie André Mitchell BA. MTh Johannesburg, South Africa