Parashat Hukat: A leader's love

Moses gave up comforts of princedom, slew the Egyptian taskmaster because of love for his brethren.

heston88 (photo credit:)
heston88
(photo credit: )
This week's Torah portion contains two major episodes which initially seem completely unconnected. The first is the strange ritual of the red heifer, whereby an individual defiled by contact with death is purified by being sprinkled with the heifer's ashes mixed with "living" water. This procedure is considered to be beyond human understanding: the very mixture which purifies the impure serves to defile the priests/kohanim involved in making and transporting it. The second incident is the punishment of Moses. The Israelites once again find themselves without water, and the Almighty asks Moses to speak to a rock from which water will emerge. Moses strikes the rock instead. God then turns upon His faithful servant, informing him that he will not bring the congregation into the Promised Land. This too seems to be beyond human understanding. Is it so much less of a miracle when water emerges from a rock which has been struck by a rod than from a rock which has been spoken to? Did the individual who left the palace of Pharaoh to liberate the Hebrew slaves, who nurtured his freed nation throughout its wanderings in an alien desert, deserve to be refused entry into the Promised Land merely because he didn't obey every detail of a Divine command? And in addition to our attempt to understand these two incidents, can we discover the thread that links them and causes them to be juxtaposed within the same biblical reading? I believe that the connecting thread is the empowering strength of love. The ritual of the red heifer is a prime example of a hok - a law for which there is no obvious reason; there are many such laws within our Bible, like the law of circumcision and the laws of kashrut. The performance of more understandable laws - such as returning lost objects and giving charity - emanates from our conscious understanding that we must attempt to form a more perfect society. The performance of the hukim, however, emanates from our love of the Divine; my relationship with God is such that I will gladly do whatever He asks of me, whether the reason is clear or not. Moreover, my teacher Rav Soloveitchik explains that the ritual of the red heifer is not so difficult to understand. If someone falls into a muddy pit, and I lift him out of it, I will certainly emerge with mud on my pants; similarly, if the kohen/priest leaves the Temple precincts to purify the impure, his very contact with impurity will result in his own defilement. But what is it that causes the kohen to purify others at the risk of his own defilement? It is the enormous love that he has for every Jew - a love which makes him ready to lose a little bit of his World to Come so that his fellow Jew can receive some spirituality. Such is the power of love! From this perspective we can more readily understand Moses's punishment. The most important quality of a leader of Israel must be his unconditional love for his people. Moses was just such a leader. He gave up the comforts of Egyptian princedom and slew the Egyptian taskmaster because of his love for his Hebrew brethren; he was willing to be blotted out of God's book of life unless God agreed to forgive the Israelites after the sin of the golden calf. But then Moses went through 39 difficult years in the desert with complaining Jews; they refuse to conquer the Land of Israel, they cry out for meat and fish and watermelon and garlic and support every manner of rebellion against him. At this point, God instructs him "to take a rod, to gather together the witness-assemblage (edah) and to speak to the rock before their eyes." (Numbers 20: 8). Moses, however, gathers the assemblage (kahal), cries out "listen now rebels," and strikes the rock with the rod twice. (20:10,11). Rav Harlap, a major student of Rav Kook, points out that Moses no longer sees the Jewish people as a nation of witnesses (edah) but rather as a rabble (kahal). Maimonides picks up on the fact that Moses refers to the Israelites as rebels. And Rabbenu Zadok of Lublin reads the story almost like a Freudian interpretation of a dream: God instructs Moses to speak to the people; Moses sees the people as a hard, stiff-necked rock, and strikes them in anger. A leader of Israel must love his nation; he will then empower them with his love to improve and ultimately redeem. For many understandable reasons Moses could not love his people anymore, but even if that was understandable, neither could he lead them into the next stage, into Israel. Only a leader with empowering love could do that. And so Moses had to step aside for Joshua to take his place. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.