Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)

Rabbi David Stav

“The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh”. The Torah never specifies when the main events of this incident transpire. Indeed, there is no mention of which year of their desert sojourn when this occurred. But our rabbis tell us that it happened on the fortieth year, after all of the adults in the desert generation, who had witnessed the sin of the spies and suffered the consequences, had died.

The Torah relates that “the congregation has no water”. The nation was thirsty, and it congregated around Moses, exclaiming, “Why have you brought the congregation of the Lord to this desert so that we and our livestock should die there?!”.

This quote seems to have been copied directly from the events that occurred only a month after the people of Israel left Egypt. Back then, just days after experiencing great miracles, the people arrive at Refidim, where, the Torah relates, “the nation was thirsty for water.”

Apparently, nothing had changed over the course of forty years: the nation is one and the same, and so is the water. The only one who has changed is Moses. In the Book of Exodus, Moses cries out to God, and essentially backs up the people’s claims.

But here, the Torah tells us that Moses and Aaron left the congregation, approached the entranceway of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. It was as if they were fleeing to avoid a lynching by a mob, only to later prostrate themselves before God. How can we understand this behavior?

Perhaps they did this out of frustration and desperation. However, most of our commentators posit that they fell in order to pray, though they do not specify whether they were praying for water for the nation, or to understand how to overcome this severe crisis.

One thing is certain, though: they have no idea what to do. God appears to Moses and tells him to take his staff and speak to the rock so that it yields water for the people to drink.

This episode is not unlike what occurred earlier, when Moses was commanded to strike a rock so that water would gush out. In the latter case, however, something goes awry: Moses takes his staff, congregates the people, and asks them a rhetorical question: “Will we get water out of the rock?” Then, he strikes twice at the rock, and water gushes out in great quantities.

Consequently, Moses and Aaron are punished by being denied entry to the Promised Land, the place about which they had dreamt for such a long time.

Why were Aaron and Moses so skeptical about the possibility that water would come out of the rock through speech? Is it any more realistic for the water to emerge from the rock after being struck with a stick?

Some of our sages claim that they were not sure which to rock they were supposed to speak,  while others explain that Moses and Aaron had assumed that they needed to strike the rock just as they had done the previous time.

Perhaps, what happened to them after forty years was exactly what often happens to us: we lose faith in the power of speech. If you are unable to achieve something through force – just use more force, yes? If you are unable to persuade them, you hit them, coerce them, legislate, or use any other forceful means to impose your will on others.

There are times in the life of a nation when it needs to strike rocks with sticks in order to persevere. If someone lays trapped under a car after an accident occurs, we will muster all our strength to pull that person out. However, force should be used sparingly and only in unusual circumstances.

When it came time for the Jews to be taken out of Egypt, force needed to be applied on Pharaoh for him to understand that the Jews needed to be released. Sometimes, some type of force needs to be applied for the Jews in the Diaspora to awaken from their slumber, and realize that Israel is the home of the Jewish people.

These, however, are the extraordinary cases that demonstrate how we should behave under ordinary circumstances. As the Jews prepared to enter the Land of Israel, they needed to learn a new language, the language of speech, as opposed to the language of force. This is not because they were incapable of using force, but rather because using force exclusively is unwise and ineffective. No Jew will ever return to the fold under coercion from some outside force, or political coercion on issues such as conversion or observing Shabbat.

When God tells Moses to speak to the rock, instead of striking it, this is not a manifestation of weakness. Rather, it is a profound recognition of a human being’s Divine nature. The power of speech, and not the physical ability to strike at others, is what embodies the essence of human beings. You speak to a generation of Israelites at the gates of the Promised Land after undergoing a forty-year desert trauma. You do not hit them.

Likewise, in contemporary Israeli society, people are losing faith in the power of speech. Sometimes, it seems as though the intoxication of power, or perhaps desperation and disenchantment in our ability to maintain dialogue, along with an unwillingness to believe in the power of speech, leads us to use force instead of speaking with each other. Yet the time has come for speaking, starting right now.

Shabbat Shalom 


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