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Monday, July 07, 2008

Parshat Chukat 5768

This week, we read Numbers 19:1-22:1, known as Parshat Chukat. Torah portions almost always take their names from the first important word to appear in Hebrew. In Parshat Chukat, the first seven words are formulaic. The word chukat is the ninth word and refers to statutes of the Torah that God is explaining to Moshe (Moses) and Aaron with the goal of having Moshe and Aaron explain these statues to the rest of the Jewish people.

But the major thing for which Parshat Chukat is known is the incident referred to as Mei Merivah – The Waters of Strife, which is told in Numbers 20:2-13. Miriam, the only sister of Moshe and Aaron, has just died in the desert. The miraculous source of water, which was provided in her merit to the Jewish people since the Exodus from Egypt, dried up upon her death. The people demand that Moshe and Aaron provide a new source of water immediately.

In their panic over a lack of water, the people say hurtful, insulting things to Moshe and Aaron. God tells Moshe to gather the Jewish people around a certain rock. God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock in the sight of all of the people and water sufficient for all their needs will begin to flow from the rock. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe gathers everyone together and, in a fit of pique, smacks the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the people and their animals drink their fill.

The punishment comes swiftly. In the very next verse, God informs Moshe and Aaron that they have lost the privilege of leading the people into the Land of Israel. Not only will they not lead the people into Israel, they will not have the privilege of entering the Land of Israel themselves. A natural question is, what did they do that was so wrong? Surely anyone can understand that Moshe smacked the rock out of anger, even righteous indignation.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) provides us with a way to understand. At this point in the Biblical narrative, the Jewish people are about to enter the Promised Land. Much like today, life in the Promised Land was going to be a challenge. It was going to be much harder than life in the desert had been. God wants to strengthen the people’s faith. Even though their future life in the Land of Israel is filled with challenges, the same God who makes water flow from a rock will be with them, helping them face their uncertain future.

In that single moment of Godly theatre, Moshe was supposed to teach that one who has faith in God can flourish in Israel, despite the apparent challenges. By hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, Moshe lost the opportunity to make this clear to the Jewish people.

Today, when a family announces to friends and loved ones that they are making aliyah, that they are moving to Israel, they are often met with the question, “How can you even think about moving to such a country??” But those who have learned this story know that a good life is possible in Israel exactly because God offers the Jewish people closer, more personal supervision in the Land of Israel than anywhere else in the world.

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