Within parasha Chukat is the incident which disqualifies Moshe from entering the promised Land. It seems rather insignificant on the surface. The people complain (again) about a lack of water. G-d instructs Moshe how to meet the need. He is to go before the people and speak to the rock and water will come out and they will be satisfied. Moshe goes to the rock and hits it with the ‘rod of G-d’ and water comes out. Now by the fact that the water came out, in other words the method worked, we wonder why G-d’s displeasure is manifested so quickly and harshly. The need was met, it was a miracle and the people knew it was from G-d, what’s the ‘big deal’, why’s G-d so angry?
He gives His reason in 20:12 “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel”. Moshe and Aaron lacked faith and failed to sanctify Him. What does it mean to sanctify G-d’s name? “You shall faithfully observe My commandments; I am YHVH. You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the people of Israel, I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” Lev 22:31, 32. Observance of the commandments of G-d results in the sanctification of His name, our fulfillment of Torah shows everyone else the true G-d. Somehow this was lacking in the episode before us.
Rashi said the following; "For if you had spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation, and they would have said: 'If this rock, which does not speak and does not hear, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, then certainly we should do so." For Rashi the sin was Moshe’s failure to follow G-d’s instructions to the letter. G-d may have said strike before (Ex 17) but now He said ‘speak to it’. Just because he hit the rock before doesn't mean that is the method G-d has chose to get water from rocks. This was a new situation and a new generation, things were to be done differently in this case. There is no incantation or procedure that brings results from G-d every time you do them, that is sorcery and magic.
Rambam said this about sanctifying the Name; "There are other things that are a profanation of the name of God. When a man, great in the knowledge of the Torah and reputed for his piety does things which cause people to talk about him, even if the acts are not express violations (of the Torah), he profanes the name of God. The greater a man is, the more scrupulous should he be in all such things, and do more than the strict letter of the law requires". Moshe was the leader and being watched all the time and everything he did was looked on as an indirect communication from G-d. So when Moshe was angry with the people, they assumed G-d was, although the text does not indicate this was the case; Moshe was being an inaccurate reflection of G-d’s character and will.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman said the rebuke was for a lack of faith. It was the sin in saying “shall WE bring forth water..” Those words could easily be construed by the people that it was Moshe, and not G-d, who met their need. Moshe blew another chance to declare G-d’s greatness. We can never take credit for the power of G-d working through us.
We can learn from all these things because even though we are not Moshe and Aaron, we are the priests of the world and have been placed in positions of visibility and responsibility. As G-d’s representatives, we must be very careful when we speak and act in His name. We must represent Him accurately and completely, not letting our emotions or ideas color our service. When people see us they should see G-d. We make sure the G-d they see is not warped by us but is a pure and unadulterated as possible so that He is glorified and not us.
The Torah contains commands for which there is no rational explanation and no direct cause and effect can be determined. ‘Do not murder’ and ‘do not steal’ make sense to us. It is easy so understand the damage done to individuals and society when such rules are not adhered to. The commands of idolatry and shabbat are part of our religious duty to YHVH and make sense in that context. Into this mix we throw commands like that of the red heifer.
The regulations regarding it are straightforward. A red cow is to be found which has not been worked. They take it outside the camp and slaughter it in the presence of the priest and after sprinkling some of the blood toward the tent of meeting it is burnt. While it is being burnt, some cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson thread are thrown into the fire. The ashes are then gathered and put in water to be used for cleansing. The rest of chapter 19 describes the use of the ashes for cleansing from corpse impurity which will be very important for the priests and the levites who will serve in the tabernacle.
The sages have given various reasons for the details. The red cow symbolizes sin and the fact that it has never been under a yoke corresponds to the sinner who has cast off the yoke of G-d. The other materials also have their various interpretations. But this still leaves us with a lack of understanding as to how the ashes of a dead cow mixed with water sprinkled on a person or object removes the religious contamination they contract in the presence of a dead body.
The answer to that question lies in the spiritual lesson the people of Israel (and we) were to learn through this. Why do dead bodies contaminate a person and make them unable to enter the Mishkan? What is death? Death, as Rav Sha’ul points out, is a consequence of sin. Death reminds us that we are not all we were created to be, that we have all fallen short, that there are no completely righteous individuals among us. Death is the opposite of what G-d is about, the Author of Life. Therefore, when one is in the presence of a dead body, something of that which is opposite of G-d, something of the sphere of sin and death. One cannot come into the presence of G-d covered with the filth of that realm. The ashes of the red cow removed that impurity, not through some scientific cause and effect but because G-d said so.
Which brings us to the most important part of the whole matter. We may not always understand why G-d commands us to do certain things but that doesn’t make them any less important. The person with corpse impurity who came into the Mishkan was to be cut off from the people. He may have neglected taking care of it; too busy. He may have not seen the point. He may have told himself that he understood the spiritual implications of the command therefore he no longer needed the literal application. There are things that go on in the spiritual realm and intricacies of G-d’s creation that impact our relationship with Him we do not yet understand. We need to take everything in the covenant seriously, as Yahushua said, it is our duty. That will allow us to put off the things that contaminate and abide in His glorious presence.
In this week’s portion we find the event that keeps Moshe and Aaron from entering the land. Amidst all the other things that have gone wrong, their other failures, it is interesting that this little event centered around brining water out of a rock for the community should be the one that disqualifies them. What about Aaron and the golden calf or Moshe’s failure with the spies? Some commentators in fact, say that this was just and excuse for G-d to punish them for their earlier sins. But it is more than that. Moshe and Aaron were wearing down as leaders and their actions at the rock show that the closeness they had with G-d and the understanding they had developed in His will had eroded considerably.
The story is that the people complained about the lack of water and G-d instructed Moshe what to do about it. Moshe gathered the assembly and took the staff and went to a rock. Then he made this speech "Listen now, O rebels, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock" and then he struck it with the staff. So what was the sin?
First, the command was to speak to the rock, not strike it. Moshe disobeyed a direct command from YHVH. Tradition has it that he was looking for the particular rock that had followed them through the wilderness but it had disappeared with the death of Miriam and after speaking to several rocks with the people jeering him, he lost patience and hit it with the rod. He was frustrated and it seemed reasonable to strike it. After all, G-d told him to take the rod with him and that’s how it was done in the past. This is the basis for G-d’s charge that Moshe didn’t believe Him, he didn’t stand firm on G-d’s instructions. Interestingly enough, the rock did produce water. There is more involved that this, however.
Moshe insulted the people in his speech, he was angry. He had lost patience, he had labeled the people. The real problem here is that Moshe was G-d’s representative here and the people assumed that Moshe's attitude reflected G-d’s. If Moshe was angry, G-d must be angry. There is not indication, however, that G-d was angry. Moshe was misrepresenting G-d, a serious sin.
There was a little pride mixed in here as well-not good for the most humble man in the earth. He stated to the people "Must we.." implying that he and Aaron had the ability to bring forth water from the rock. This was the basis for G-d’s charge that Moshe did not sanctify Him before the congregation. Moshe did not make sure the congregation understood that only the Almighty had the power to perform these deeds.
Moshe had begun to lose the things that made him a great leader; humility, patience, closeness with G-d, unquestioned obedience to His commands. Because of this, he would not be able to lead the people in the difficult task of conquering the land. We must learn the lesson that cost Moshe so much. When we begin to lose those things that make us effective servants in the kingdom, we must go back and take a good long look at our lives and change the things that need to be changed. Then we will be worthy of great service to our King.
This week Moshe blows it. He has led the people from Egypt, he has received the covenant, he has kept them from being destroyed by God on numerous occasions, he has exhibited good leadership and humility and extraordinary spiritual power...until now. The people are whining again. If you have or have had small children, you know how constant whining can really drain a person. Moshe must have been drained. I am sure he was frustrated and discouraged. He had just come off the Korach affair, the people refused to learn and repent. And of all things, to be complaining about the water again! Had YHVH not constantly provided it for them throughout their journey? And not only were they complaining about the water but they are complaining about having left Egypt! They are called the ‘children of Israel’ for a reason, they never seem to grow up!
Moshe knows the routine. The people want something and he knows God is going to provide it, he just has to go to the tent and ask how. He gets his instructions, he is to go and speak to the rock before their eyes. There was to be a spiritual lesson here, a reminder of the power and provision of God. Moshe grabs his staff and goes to the rock. He is still apparently angry. There is nothing in God’s instructions that make Him appear angry but Moshe begins by calling the people ‘you rebels’. A true statement but not necessary. Just because something is true does not mean it needs to be shared, particularly when it is negative.
Moshe then crosses the line. ‘Must we (plural of I) bring forth water from this rock’. He no longer set God apart, he took it on himself. Did Moshe have the power to bring forth water from the rock? Apparently so because even though he did not do what God instructed, the water came out anyway. But the way he did it exalted his ‘I’. Korach wanted to be above the people, he did not want to be ‘echad’, he wanted to be superior. Moshe is exhibiting the exact same trait here. He is setting himself up as unique. He has unique power and he can exercise it when he wants to and because they are rebellious they should be thankful for his grace in giving them water.
Moshe’s job, and ours, is to accurately reflect the will and character of God in the world. We are to be ‘echad’, in unity, with God. Y’shua said the same thing, he wished the Talmidim would be one as he and the Father were one. Humility is setting aside the ego, the ‘I’ and allowing the divine to shine through, to motivate action, to speak and do great things. A true leader is not one who exalts himself or herself over others but one who wants to help others become as they are. Moshe revealed this desire when he said ‘I wish all of God’s people were prophets’. When Moshe went to the rock the people were supposed to see something that did not exalt Moshe but revealed to them their own spiritual possibilities. Instead they got what appeared to be an angry magician procuring water for them by his own power. There was nothing in Moshe that was not in every one of those Israelites, and in us as well. Moshe learned to use it after forty years in the desert herding sheep, communing with YHVH. He learned to regard himself as nothing and allow God to be revealed within him. His job was not just to take the people physically to Israel but to elevate them spiritually by his example. He could not do that from a pedestal. Neither can we.
Bamidbar is an interesting book, much more like Bereshit than Deuteronomy, Shemot or Vayikra. The last three contain what we expect from the Torah-teaching about how to live our lives and order our society. Bereshit and Bamidbar, however, tell a lot more stories and contain what we may consider rather useless information. Did the Bible really have to ‘waste’ valuable space with the repetitive descriptions of the tribes’ gifts for the Mishkan or the wordy way the census was presented? That information is much less ‘Torah’ or teaching for us than say, the ten commandments or the laws of Kashrut...or is it?
What is Torah? There are many definitions. It can refer to the first five books of the Bible. It can be ‘teaching’ in general. Recently a messianic publication went into the root words for Torah in order to give greater meaning to the word. Torah, they said, comes from ‘yarah’ which means to flow, like water flowing from a spring, the flow of words from a teacher’s mouth or even the flow of an arrow from the archer. From the last example we get the idea that Torah is the target for which we aim, it is the goal we seek to fulfil with our lives and lifestyle. Do you see a problem here? We went from something that flows, something active and dynamic, to something that sits there and is acted upon, namely a target. Perhaps the analogy was misconstrued to fit a preconceived idea or theology....like that’s never happened before!
We have lost the flowing aspect of Torah and in doing so have turned it into a static, dead thing, an archaic document from a people and a culture completely foreign to us. It is something we read and study but have no real part in. That is Torah as target. But the Torah is that which flows, it is not the target, it is the arrow. It is something in motion and that is what makes Bamidbar and Bereshit such wonderful Torah. It is the story of the journey of Israel, their flowing from Egypt to the Promised Land. This turns the nature of Torah and the way we read it upside down. We usually look on it as legal material interspersed with stories that give it context. In reality it is the stories that give context to the legal material. The legal material, aside from timeless ethical and moral principles, was created on the fly. When Israel showed up at Mt. Sinai they were all to be priests and the Glory of God was to rest upon them all. The Mishkan and the Levitical order were a response to circumstances, in this case the golden calf. Most of what is in the first five books of the Bible is Moshe’s revelation on how Israel is to conduct itself on this national journey. It was Moshe’s Torah, it was Israel’s Torah and no one else's because it is their story, their journey. It is not Torah for Americans or Africans or Chinese or even Israel today. The Torah of NOW, of today’s journey will not be the same as that of 3500 years ago. Even the history of Israel as contained in the Bible bears this out. If they adhered to the practical and ethical parts of the Torah, the timeless principles of justice, they were prosperous. Religious practices were the concern of few as evidenced by the fact that Pesach was not even celebrated from the time of Joshua to Josiah’s time. Idolatry was a problem not because of the stupidity of worshipping carvings-such things were even found in Ya’akov’s company-but because it led to immorality and injustice.
Torah is being written now, in Israel’s journey, in America’s journey in my journey and yours. It is the process of our ‘flowing’, our moving through time and space in this life. Will our journey include the timeless principles of morality and justice, will the book we write be one of great movements of discovery and enlightenment? Will it be a thick book filled with wisdom and truth? Will your name be included in other people’s Torahs and will it be positively or negatively? Will it be short book with short sentences about working nine to five for forty years, watching a lot of TV and never questioning. Will our journey be a journey at all, will we flow as living water, moving, questioning, seeking and growing or will we be stagnant like the target, simply sitting there thinking we know all we need, that we have developed as a human being far enough. We are all writing our own Torah, what will yours be like?