Parshat Chukat: Why was Moshe punished and not allowed to enter the Land?

Rabbi Eliyahu and Bat Chen Bar-Geva, Straus-Amiel shlichim, are the first ever rabbinical couple to serve in Alicante, Spain

%D7%91%D7%A8 %D7%92%D7%91%D7%A2After spending a few Shabbatot in the synagogue with the lovely members of our new community, we noticed an elderly man whom nobody knew quietly walk in. He put on a kippah and went to sit alone in one of the corners of the women’s gallery. It was clear to us that he knew quite well where the men’s section was and was expecting an angry or negative reaction on our part at his choice.  However, my husband, the rabbi of the congregation, approached him, shook his hand, asked him about himself and didn’t mention his choice of seating at all. 

Ever since that Shabbat, this Jew has been coming to the Shabbat service.  He goes up to the women’s gallery where he sits, listens to the service and joins in the prayer.  Sometimes he even asks to make kiddush for everyone and shares some of his worldviews and perspectives. 

Then, eight months after making his first appearance, he entered the women’s gallery as he did every Shabbat, said to himself, “I don’t hear so well up here”, and made his way down to the men’s section.  My husband, Rabbi Eliyahu, and I were dumbfounded.  Something in this stubborn and righteous Jew had given way.  A layer had been peeled away.  We knew for certain that had we commented on his sitting in the women’s gallery the first time we saw him, he would never have showed his face in the synagogue again. 

Much has been written about Mei Meriva – the Waters of Strife – and the reason for Moshe’s receiving such a severe punishment on account of hitting the rock instead of talking to it.  Was it really such a grave crime?

I have found a great variety of commentaries attempting to explain this, although the truth of the matter is that we simply cannot understand God’s ways and His reasoning. 

I find it difficult to write words of criticism about Moshe, who supposedly committed a negative action.  Who are we to judge him?

And yet I would like to share a commentary that really touched me:

Moshe leads the Israelites through the desert for many a decade.  Through the scorching days and freezing nights, he listens to their every complaint.  They are witness to both revealed and concealed miracles until they finally reach the edge of the great wildness of Zin, where Miriam, Moshe’s sister, dies and there is no water for the People to drink. 

The People start complaining:  “Soon we shall all die of thirst!  There is no water!  What a shame we came here in the first place!  Maybe we should have stayed in Egypt and died there!  Why did you bring us into the wilderness?  Just so we could die?  So much for your promises of figs and grapes and pomegranates… But water?!  Surely, we cannot exist without water!?”

Frustrated, Moshe listens.  He must have thought, “We have been walking this desert for so many years, and you have seen some incredible miracles – so how about a little faith on your part?” Still in mourning for his sister, Moshe has to contend with endless complaints by the People. They have made him so tired. 

And he blurts out: “Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?”

“And Moshe lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle.” (Bamidbar 20, 10-11)

Put in more contemporary language, “Listen up you obstinate, spoiled people!  Nothing is good enough for you!  You are satisfied with nothing!  God said the rock will bring forth water and so it will!”

And then on the spur of the moment, he hits the rock instead of talking to it. 

And God says to Moshe that in wake of his action he will not be allowed to enter the Holy Land but would die in the desert. 

The Psikta deRav Kahana on the words “Hear now, ye rebels” says as follows:

“It is written ‘And the Lord spoke unto Moses and unto Aharon, and gave them a charge unto the children of Israel’ (Shemot 6:13).  With what did he charge them?  He told them do not call my sons rebels!  And since they complained in the Waters of Meriva, Moshe responded with ‘Hear now, ye rebels’, to which God responded – I have warned you against calling my son rebels, but since you have called my sons rebels – you shall not enter [the Land].”

The Ibn Ezra on Bamidbar 20:8 writes:  “[He was punished] for the reason that he said to the Israelites ‘Hear now, ye rebels’, to them who are the sons of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov.”

This notion is also expressed by the Yalkut Shimoni: “At Mt Sinai the Children of Israel proclaimed ‘We shall do and we shall listen’.  Much like a young child who goes to the synagogue, fulfills the mitzvot, gets dressed, brushes his teeth, showers etc. and complies with the will of his parents who have taught him his habits.  All this is the “We shall do” part [of the Torah].  However, as the child gets older, it no longer suffices to focus on the “doing” part only, and one has to start “listening” as well.  In other words, we are now required to explain to the child how meaningful and sweet the mitzvot are.  More importantly, one must believe in the child even more than he believes in himself.  One must keep telling him that he is capable, and that we have full confidence in his abilities. 

Our mentor in the Straus-Amiel institute, Rabbi Eliahu Birnbaum, put is as follows:  “That which was suitable for the generation of the Exodus, was no longer suitable for those entering the Land.  In Egypt it was appropriate to “hit the rock”; however, once in Israel, it was wiser to adopt a “talking-to-the-rock” approach.” 

The rock can serve as a parable for all of us.  Ostensibly, after dozens of years of leadership, the great leader Moshe reaches a breaking point and finds himself disconnected from the People.  Hence, God reacts and says: “Don’t give up on any Jew no matter what!  Always see the good in each person!  Even when one of them complains, he is still my son, for he is the son of Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov!  Therefore, nobody has the right to call any of them rebels or dissidents.” 

We have only just set out on our journey, and the Jewish People can definitely be a stiff-necked People.  I wish all of us – shlichim, parents, teachers and all those engaged in educating the next generation – to have faith in our children, in our students and in every Jew, and to find the good in each and every individual.  In other words, let us give them all our vote of confidence.  Don’t give up on any Jew!

Alicante, a city in Spain, is the capital of the province of Alicante in the southern part of Valencia.  The Jewish community of Alicante is comprised of Jews who immigrated to Spain from Chile, Venezuela, Brazil, France, Australia and other places.  This year the Jewish community of Alicante will be marking 20 years as an active and social Jewish center, as well as a full year with us.  After 19 years of existence, the community was thirsty for some culture, and that is where we came into the picture.  This is the first time ever the community has an active Rabbi and Rabbanit.  We provide religious services and offer a Jewish experience to all the Jewish families living in the vicinity. 


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