Parashat Chukkat 5777

Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 30 June 2017

Parashat Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1) indicates the beginning of the end of the forty year journey the Israelites have taken from Egypt to the Promised Land. The old generation, those who remembered the old country, who had trekked across mountain and desert, are dying out. The young ‘millennials’ will take up the mantle of leadership, political negotiation and settlement.

It is in the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon that Miriam, Moses’ sister dies and is buried at Kadesh. The people are without water – the Talmud (bTa’anit 9a) links this to Miriam’s death. For while Miriam was alive, a well of water accompanied the Israelites through the desert, but when she died, it disappeared. Once again the Israelites quarrel with Moses: ‘If only we had perished when our kinsfolk perished on account of God! Why have you brought us out of the wilderness for us and our animals to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place… there is not even water to drink!’ (20:3-5).

Moses and Aaron come away from the congregation and turn towards the Tent of Meeting. They fall on their faces, God’s Presence appears to them and instructs them to take the rod, assemble the community and ‘order the rock to yield its water.’ There is little fuss, no divine tantrum in this case as there has been on earlier occasions. It is as though God recognises the loss of Miriam, steps in to quell any further outbreak of rebellion. There have been enough tragedies.

Moses does as commanded – he takes the rod, he and Aaron assemble the congregation in front of the rock and then he says to them: ‘Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And he raises his hand and strikes the rock twice. The water rushes out and the people and their animals drink.

Retribution is swift and this story turns out to be catastrophic, not for the people, but for their leaders. ‘You didn’t affirm Me enough to affirm My sanctity,’ says God. The punishment is harsh: you shall not lead my congregation into the Promised Land.

Why such a bitter – almost cruel – punishment? What is it that offends so enormously that this man, who has given forty years of his life to the Israelite people, cannot experience the fulfilment of his own hopes and dreams?

Some commentators, Rashi and Rashbam among them, argue that he struck the rock when told to speak to it. Ibn Ezra follows an Aramaic early midrashic interpretation that Moses struck the rock twice instead of once. But would this merit such a severe sentence? Maimonides and others point to Moses’ character – he was prone to outbursts of temper and anger and there were other flaws that didn’t befit a leader – he was cowardly and callous. Of the first, there is some evidence: he is not always the calmest of leaders, but to label him as cowardly and callous is, I think, unfair and unsubstantiated by our texts. But a third aspect of interpretation focuses on something else: namely, what he says, how he addresses the congregation as ‘rebels’ and the way in which he says to them: “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?” Isn’t there a little slip of the tongue there as he attributes the miraculous power of bringing out water from the rock to himself and to Aaron, rather than God?

For a brief moment, his own needs eclipse both the needs of others and the other-worldly encounters of a man who is nothing less than visionary. It is not that we see a tiny glimpse of human narcissism in Moses – for this is a man who is singled out for his humility. It is rather that this crisis of grief – the loss of Miriam – and the desperation of Israel – leave him understandably helpless and angry. Grief has dimmed his vision.

Of Moses, Kafka writes: ‘He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. The dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life, incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.’

Miriam’s death confronts him with the realisation of his humanity, his old age and finitude. Gone is the certainty that he would lead the Israelites across the Jordan and settle in the Promised Land. Now he, too, must identify himself as one of the timeworn generation and leave a younger cohort to make their own mistakes and find their own tracks through the desert. But not before he has put into writing the words (D’varim) of a memoir, once attributed to him, a book of sublime teachings and the time bound nature of human failings – the Book of Deuteronomy.

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