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Parashat Chukat - 5777

Dear friends,

The 39 years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness until all the adults who had come out of Egypt died was covered in the preceding five portions in the Book of Bamidbar. This Parasha, Hukat, and the four portions that follow, deal with events that took place during the fortieth year, just before the new generation was to enter the Promised Land.

In this week's Parasha, we read of the death of Miriam and that, shortly thereafter, the people cannot find any water. They quarrel with Moses and Aaron and accuse them of knowingly bringing them to this desert where they may all die of thirst.

Moses and Aaron retreat to the entrance of the Tabernacle, and the presence of G-d appears to them. What follows is the well-known story that results in Moses and Aaron being punished in that they will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land.

What happened?

G-d instructs Moses that he and Aaron assemble the 'Edah' (the congregation) to a certain rock, and in front of the people speak to the rock to yield water, and "you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the Edah, and their beasts." (Numbers 20:8)

Moses and Aaron assemble the 'Kahal' (the people) in front of the rock, and Moses says to them: "Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" Moses then raises his hand and strikes the rock twice with his rod, and the people and their beasts drank. Following this, Moses and Aaron are punished (for striking rather than speaking to the rock) by not being able to lead the people into the Promised Land.

Commentaries have difficulties understanding why the punishment was so harsh. Getting water out of a rock is a miracle by itself - one that would show the people G-d's power and caring,no matter if it came by speaking to or striking the rock. A beautiful explanation is given by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. He compares the two acts of striking by Moses that are mentioned in the Torah.

The first one is when Moses first rose onto the stage of Jewish history. That's when he left Pharaoh's palace and saw the suffering of his people, and when he came upon a taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, he struck the taskmaster and buried him in the sand. The second time that Moses strikes something is when he comes off of that stage at the end of forty years when he strikes the rock instead of speaking to it. The first act was an expression of his love for his people and his courage to stand up against injustice, which resulted in his fleeing before Pharaoh to a foreign land. The second act was only against a rock, but it expressed his anger and frustration against the people that he has been leading for forty years. By admonishing the people and calling them 'you rebels' he let his anger get the best of him. And for that he demonstrated that he no longer could be the leader. He will not be there with them when they enter the Promised Land.

Another interesting point in this story is the use of the words 'Edah' (congregation) and 'Kahal' (crowd or people). When G-d commands Moses to assemble the people to the rock he uses the word 'Edah'. Moses and Aaron, however, use the word 'Kahal'. G-d sees the people as a congregation who aspire to be one with the common goals of entering the Promised Land and creating a new nation united in their religion and love of one another. In his frustration, Moses sees all these people who have assembled to quarrel with him as a crowd of angry, selfish individuals who are ready to complain whenever an obstacle presents itself.

A leader must recognize the qualities of the congregation, of the community. They may have differences but they are all part of one people and must always be treated with respect. We could all use some help in this area. Whether in America or in Israel, our leaders need to embrace the entire congregation and work for their well-being, even if they have different opinions and different needs.

Poor Moses. After forty years, he lost his temper with the people, and because of that, he was not privileged to complete his mission and lead them into the Promised Land.

Shabbat Shalom,