PARASHAT CHUKKAT: 2011/5771
THE NEED FOR ANSWERS
And the Lord said unto Moses and onto Aaron: Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given to them. (Num. 20:12).
This verse is one of the most puzzling in the entire Torah. God had instructed Moses and Aaron to take the staff, gather the congregation and speak to the rock in their presence, so that it would give forth its waters and suffice the assembly and their livestock. True, Moses did lift up his hand and he did strike the rock twice with his rod. But although Moses and Aaron had not done as God had commanded, the punishment does not seem to have fitted the crime. In sharp contrast with his forty years of dedicated service to God and inspired leadership of the restive Israelites, this infraction was relatively minor. Moses’ cherished dream of consummating his relationship with his people by leading them into the Promised Land appears to have been unjustly frustrated.
The incongruence of the crime and the punishment has exercised the minds of the great classical, medieval and modern commentators. The all attempted to justify the Divine retribution. I present a sampling of their attempts:
THE SUFFERINGS OF THE RIGHTEOUS: The Sages of the Talmud (BT Berakhot 6a) offer one of their standard responses to the theodicy, of why bad things happen to good people: We have learned that it is beneficial for the righteous not to be favored in this world. It was to Moses’ advantage that he was not rewarded in this world, as [our text] declares: “Because you did not believe in Me”. [This implies that] “had you believed in me, the time for you to pass away would not have come.” (B.T.Yoma, 86a). This dictum reflects the rabbinic view that life beyond the grave is infinitely more valuable than life in this world. (BT Avot 4: 21-22) Accordingly, righteous people experience painful retribution for all their infraction in this transient world so that their eternal life beyond the grave will be without any suffering.
THE EFFECTS OF PUBLIC DISOBEDIENCE: In his elucidation of our text, Rashi (1040-1105) focuses on the consequences of Moses’ public disobedience. Moses had previously expressed his extreme frustration at the unreasonable demands of the Israelites in terms far sharper than his current outburst: Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them and be enough for them? Shall all the fish of the sea be gathered for them and suffice them? (Num. 11:22). Nevertheless, there was an important difference between his two deprecating comments about his flock. The first outburst was made privately. No one else was present when he demeaned the Israelites to God. In our case, however, his disobedience to God and disrespect for his people were public. The public nature of his action desecrated the Divine Name [chillul ha-Shem]. According to the sages, so serious is chillul ha-Shem that only death effects repentance.( BT Yoma 86a)
THE EFFECTS OF IMPERFECT FAITH: Rashi also refers to Moses’ punishment in his commentary on Kohelet (7:7): For distress makes the wise man stupid. Citing another Midrash, Rashi suggests that Moses is the wise person to whom the verse refers, and that the pressure on him was Datan and Aviram’s mocking taunt. God had sent Moses to Pharaoh to demand the release of all the Israelite slaves. However, Pharaoh was so incensed by the impertinence of the Divine request that he increased the hardship of slavery, making the burdens of the Israelites even more unbearable. Datan and Aviram then mocked Moses for his disastrous intervention, provoking him to declare: My Lord why have you dealt evil unto this people? Why did you send me? From the time I came unto Pharaoh to speak in Your name he has dealt evilly with this nation. And You failed to deliver your people [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta]. (Ex. 5:22-23). In his commentary on that verse, Rashi writes: “You will see what will happen to Pharaoh”,[says God] but you will not see what will happen to the kings of the seven nations when I bring them [the Israelites} to their land. Moses’ comment about God’s seeming failure to bring about the redemption [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta] was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Moses’ lack of faith on that occasion was a prelude to his lack of faith by the rock. According to this Midrash, he had only himself to blame for the fate that he had unconsciously predicted [ve-hatzel lo hitzalta].
THE EFFECTS OF ANGER AND RAGE: Rambam (Maimonides: 1135-1204) offers an entirely different rationalization for God’s severe reaction to Moses’ infraction. He writes in his Shemonah Perakim ˆ[Introduction to Pirkei Avot] that Moses was punished for his raging at the Israelites. Ramban (Nachmanides:1194-1270) disagrees with Rambam. The outburst by the rock was not the first occasion that Moses had been angry. Moreover, anger is not included in the Torah’s catalogue of sins. Ritva (R.Yomtov ben Abraham Ishbili:1250-1330), another great medieval commentator, explains Rambam’s rationalization of Gods’ harsh punishment. After the incident of the Golden Calf, Moses had requested that God reveal His essence. Demurring, God nevertheless disclosed his thirteen essential attributes. These attributes were to become models for human behavior. Among them was the attribute of infinite forbearance [erekh apayim.] . Moses’ rageful outburst against the complaining Israelites by the rock demonstrated his failure to serve as the supreme human role model of the Divine attribute of infinite forbearance. This failure merited Divine retribution.
THE HIGHER EXPECTATIONS FROM THE RIGHTEIOUS: Rashbam (R. Shmu’el ben Meir: 1085-1184) reiterates the classical rabbinic notion of different standards of behavior for different people. God expects more from more highly spiritually evolved and morally mature people than He does from ordinary folk. Accordingly, his judgment of Moses’ relatively minor infraction is far harsher than it would have been if a person of lesser stature had made the same mistake. Avraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164) develops this theme in a more mystical fashion. The perfectly spiritually, intellectually and ethically evolved human being achieves complete attachment to the Divine. This connection permits him access to the Divine and gives him the power to perform miracles. Moses’ outburst severed his connection to the Divine. Therefore he was unable to perform the miracle as God had commanded, therteby failing to sanctify Him in public. Moses was punished because he had not lived up to God’s higher expectations of him.
THE EFFECTS OF MISREPRESENTATION: Ramban argues that Moses’ sin was clearly implied in his outburst.: Now pay attention you rebels. Shall we draw water from this rock for you? (Num.20:10). Moses had implied that the miracle would be performed by him and his brother rather than by God (Shall we draw the water?). This was a serious misrepresentation, and the reason for his extraordinarily harsh punishment.
MOSESES FAILURE AS A TEACHER: Two commentators allude to God’s judgment as a reflection on Moses’ failure as a teacher. Joseph Albo (d.1144), author of Sefer ha-Ikkarim, suggests that Moses failed to teach the Israelite nation that the righteous [tzadikim] are able to bend the laws of nature to do their will. Other prophets, such as Elijah and Elisha had demonstrated this power. Some of the charismatic rabbis of the first century C.E. like Choni the Circle Maker had sanctified the Divine Name by making nature bend to their wills. Surely Moses, the greatest of the prophets, should also have publicly demonstrated this principle.
The Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Berlin:1817-1893) refers to the practice of public fasting, repentance, exhortation and prayer during periods of drought. The Jewish people adopted these practices after the period of prophecy, once they were living in their own land, subject to the laws of nature and no longer relying on miracles. On the eve of their entry into the Promised Land, Moses should have taught them what they would have to do during subsequent periods of drought. His failure to do so was, therefore, a reflection of his failure to teach a vital lesson.
FAILURE OF LEADERSHIP: Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offers an ingenious explanation of God’s judgment. The Divine command to Moses to speak to the rock rather than strike it was deliberate. To be sure, Moses had used his staff to strike the rock under similar circumstances shortly after the crossing of the Red Sea. His audience at that time was the assembly of the newly liberated slaves. The slave generation was used to whips and sticks. This was the way their masters had controlled them. This is what they had also expected from their new leader, who had used the same strategy as a Prince in Pharaoh’s palace and a commander of Egypt’s armed forces. But forty years later, Moses was facing a generation. That generation had never known the humiliation of the taskmaster’s whip and the enforcer’s baton. That generation required communication rather than intimidation, the tongue rather than the staff. It was a generation that needed a kind of leadership different from that to which Moses had been used. His failure to deliver this new type of leadership was what determined God to replace him with a leader of a different mind-set.
ENTIRELY DIFFERENT INFRACTIONS: Malbim (R. Meir Loeb ben Yechiel Michael:1809-1879) audaciously suggests that Moses’ striking the rock was not really his fatal transgression. It was, indeed, a trifling infraction. His real transgression was his disastrous mandate to the twelve spies. God had promised the Israelites victory in their battle to possess the Promised Land. He had Himself described it as a land flowing with mink and honey. These promises and affirmations did not require the validation of the spies. God commanded Moses to send them to map the best route to be taken by the conquering Israelites. Instead, Moses instructed them to report on the strength of the defenses, the nature of the inhabitants and the produce of the land. This ill-conceived mission was the immediate reason for the evil report of the spies. Its consequence was forty years in the wilderness and the death of an entire generation. Four decades later, when the new generation was ready to conquer the Promised Land under a new leader, God, as it were, found an opportunity to punish Moses for his responsibility for the evil report of the spies and its terrible consequences. Similarly, after God had chosen new leaders, Aaron could now be punished for his active participation in the building of the golden calf so many years previously. The incident by the rock was nothing more than the pretext for delivering the long delayed judgment merited by the serious misdeeds of Moses and Aaron.
Justification of astonishing divine decrees underlies all the explanations of the disproportionate punishment of Moses for what happened at the rock. All the commentators’ strain to justify God by vilifying Moses. There is a perennial theme. The ways of God are mysterious, puzzling and often inexplicable. In order to understand God’s ways without questioning His harsh judgments, innocent victims are often vilified. This is a Biblical theme. The Book of Job is about the undeserved suffering of the righteous. Its author makes it abundantly clear that Job’s suffering is totally unrelated to any infraction committed by him. His so-called comforters are convinced that he must have sinned grievously to suffer such harsh punishment. Surely a just God could not be guilty of the injustice of punishing the innocent. In their attempt to do God’s arithmetic, Job’s companions justify God by vilifying their unfortunate friend.
The Satmar Rebbi, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum’s (1888-1979) vilification of Zionists ( in his book Va-Yo’el Moshe) is the most recent example of this tendency. The unprecedented murder of six million Jews has challenged many theological certainties. Compared to the Nazi fiends, the Jewish victims of the Shoah were saints. Among the six million were great leaders, teachers and superb role models of the highest standards of noble living. How could a just God have permitted so terrible a thing to happen to so many good people? Rabbi Teitelbaum offered a facile explanation. Citing an Aggadic passage in the Talmud that prohibited future illegitimate Jewish military conquest of the Holy Land, he accused the Zionists of frustrating the Divine strategy for the future miraculous salvation of the Jewish people. The Shoah was the punishment for the Zionists’ impertinent, rebellious infraction of the Divine will. Rabbi Teitelbaum had done God’s arithmetic, and justified Him by vilifying millions of innocent victims.
Rabbi Teitelbaum’s theology is grotesque. It serves God far less than the erroneous assumptions of Job’s companions had done. God’s will and ways are often mysterious. Indeed, this is the theme with which this week’s parashah begins. The law of the red heifer defies human rational understanding. The preparation of its ashes defiled those who were involved in the process. But, paradoxically, the same ashes were needed to purify those who had been defiled. The Sages themselves point out the apparent absurdity of this ritual. It is, they say, grist for the mill of scoffers, cynics and deniers. The divine calculus is beyond human comprehension. God, as it were, declares: “This was My [inscrutable] idea. I have made a decree. I have made a determination. You have no right to second guess me.”
Rational beings need answers to perplexing questions—especially those that arise from incomprehensible divine decrees. However, the lesson of the law of the red heifer and the various attempts to justify God by magnifying Moses’ infraction is clear. We simply cannot successfully do the divine arithmetic. It is healthier to have unanswered questions than to provide facile and often hurtful answers.