Parashat Chukkat 5778

Rabbi Tanya Sakhnovich – 22 June 2018

I was preparing for my session with my b’nei mitzvah class at Cheder on Jewish leadership and came across a quote by Henrich Heine beautifully paying tribute to Moses and the Jewish people two years before his death: “How small Sinai appears when Moses stands upon it! This mountain is only the pedestal for the feet of the man whose head reaches up to heavens, where he speaks with God… He built human pyramids, carved human obelisks; he took a poor shepherd family and created a nation from it – a great, eternal, holy people; a people of God, destined to outlive the centuries, and to serve as a pattern to all other nations, even as a prototype to the whole of mankind. He created Israel…”1

And indeed, Moses is such a fundamental personality in our tradition that a couple of years ago Jewish News did not accept my piece about him as my favourite Jewish person, asking – perhaps rightly – that I write about someone less prominent or familiar.

He wasn’t a blameless person himself but one chosen for the special mission by his God. Any of us who are more or less involved with our communities know how difficult it can be at times to manage some of the dynamics within them, never mind in the wilderness and constantly – so to say – on the move!

I wonder sometimes how Moses did it and, as we know, our ancestors, their complaints and some of their actions did make Moses feel emotional and angry. After all, he was just human. I reckon that he felt like giving up his most honourable but also most responsible position many more times than it is mentioned in the Torah.

And when we read in this week’s parashah about him (and Aaron) making as it seems a rather technical mistake of hitting the rock rather than speaking to it, therefore apparently not affirming God’s holiness “you didn’t trust in me to make Me holy” (20:12), Moshe’s punishment still feels very severe – he cannot enter into the Promised Land, the land he led his people to through thick and thin for 40 years.

Many midrashim and commentators try to explain the harshness of God’s verdict. One explanation suggests the punishment was so great because Moses publicly displayed his doubts and displeasure with his people2; another that Moses didn’t notice that different groups gathered around different rocks but not the one he chose, which caused him to lose his temper; or perhaps because people were mocking Moses and he lost his temper and smote the rock for the second time3. Or, as Professor R. Friedman summarises it: Moshe called people rebels, he said “we” shall bring the water, rather than God, and he strikes the Rock instead of talking to it.4 So Moshe is making it all appear as his own conduct rather than God’s, thus failing to give God appropriate recognition in this mission with his people. The severity of the punishment demonstrated the seriousness of the offence.5

“But what if Moses wasn’t himself that day?” – I asked my young people at Cheder in our lesson when we were looking through different proposed answers to justify God’s response to Moses’s wrong action. “What if he was traumatised by the death of Miriam or just couldn’t take people’s complaints anymore? Maybe he felt under tremendous pressure at that very moment for many reasons – even great leaders make mistakes, most likely when they feel under too much pressure”.

My young people took my comments into consideration. Isaac said that “Moses should have been tougher with the people so that they would not have complained as much”. When Amy stated that “Moses should have pulled himself together”. Artur, my assistant, suggested, that “if Moses’s emotions started affecting his decision-making process, he should have stepped down for the time being”. When Jacob (and a few others) concluded that poor communication between Moses and God was clearly the problem at that juncture in our history. Moses should have communicated to God his [emotional, mental] state before the episode took place.

I feel most empathetic towards Moses. Any of us who have ever been under life pressure or, even worse, needed to make important decisions under lots of pressure, and even worse than that, publicly, can definitely feel for one of the greatest leaders of our people.

I cannot understand why God would not use this opportunity to show his compassionate and understanding side to two of his not perfect but greatest servants?

Neither midrashim nor my wise young people question God’s decision. The whole responsibility was placed on either Moses or in some instances the people, with Moses being the victim of their rebellion. Perhaps it is because there is an extra responsibility on all of us, when we are in a leadership position, whether it be within our family, our work space or our community. The consequences of our mistakes can be severe indeed and perhaps for this reason God wants us, the humans, to be compassionate towards each other and others’ mistakes.

Learning from Moses’ greatest mistake I did some research into boosting decision making and performance under pressure. In one of the articles Dr. Marc Schoen suggested that we often practise our skills in a no-pressure situation. I wrote to him asking where on Earth he lives as I am ready to emigrate there and share with his students all of my and my people’s life pressures!6 But I also hope that, as in the past years, my people and I would show understanding and compassion towards each other. Not least because, maybe, when we show compassion towards each other, we help our God to be compassionate too. “My children, fill yourself with compassion…and the Eternal One will be filled with compassion towards you.” (Bereshit Rabbah 33:3.)

1 Henrich Heine, A book of Jewish Thoughts, edited by J.H. Hertz, Oxford University Press, 1917, p.66.
2 The JPS Torah commentary, Numbers, p.166.
3 The book of Legends, edited by H. N. Bialik and Y. Ravintzky, p.93.
4 Commentary on the Torah, R. E. Friedman, p. 494.
5 Ibid, p.495.

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