Parshat Hukat: Hitting and speaking

Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

June 13, 2013 19:52
3 minute read.
A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370. (photo credit: Reuters)

In the parsha which we will read on Shabbat, we will read one of the most difficult stories found in the Torah. It is important to remember: Every story told in the Torah comes to teach us a certain lesson and help us advance our lives in different areas. If it did not include such a message, the story would not appear in the Torah. The story before us has had many varied explanations written and said about it over the years. We will try to look at the message hidden in this story which is relevant to our lives.

The story is about Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon Hakohen. During the 40 years when Am Yisrael was in the desert, from its exodus from Egypt until its entrance to Eretz Yisrael, Moshe served in the role of leader, guide and judge while the entire nation attended to his every word. Toward the end of the time in the desert, Am Yisrael goes into deep despair when the water that sprung from the well for decades stopped flowing with the death of Miriam in whose merit the nation had enjoyed the well water.

The thirsty and concerned nation gathers and demands of its leaders – Moshe and Aharon – to give it water.

”... speak you unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and you shall bring forth to them water out of the rock’ (Numbers 20:8) Instead of fulfilling the word of G-d literally and speaking to the rock, Moshe picks up his rod and hits the rock twice. And indeed, water suitable for drinking flowed from the rock! Gd’s response to Moshe’s deed is extremely severe. Moshe and Aharon will not enter Eretz Yisrael with the nation they have been leading for the past 40 years, but will die in the desert.

This reaction seems to our narrow vision to be completely disproportionate.

Truthfully, Moshe erred and did not precisely fulfill G-d’s words, but let us not forget who Moshe Rabbeinu is – the greatest leader of all time. He was the one who stood courageously in front of Pharaoh in Egypt, led the nation to freedom, split the Red Sea in two, and brought down the Ten Commandments for the nation from Mount Sinai. And now, because of one small mistake, G-d decides to prevent him from attaining his great dream of entering Eretz Yisrael? This story comes to teach us an amazing lesson.

To understand it, we must remember a similar story which occurred at the beginning of Am Yisrael’s time in the desert. Then also, the nation reached a state of despair as a result of a lack of water. But then, G-d did not instruct Moshe to speak to the rock, as He did in our parsha, but rather He commanded him to hit the rock with his rod (see Exodus 17:6).

What is the reason for the difference between these two stories? Why did G-d then command to hit the rock, but here He instructed to speak to it? Forty years had passed since that first hitting of the rock, which occurred only a short time after the nation’s exodus from Egypt. The nation had just begun recuperating from its long period of slavery in Egypt. But the story in our parsha occurs 40 years later. During these years, the nation recovered, became stronger and more mature. Now the language the nation knows is not that of hitting, but of speaking.

Of course, Moshe Rabbeinu – the greatest prophet of all time – does not need approval from us, but perhaps it can be explained that that was his error.

This tragic mistake led to his leadership of the nation in Eretz Yisrael being revoked, because Moshe did not recognize the deep change that took place, and therefore could not continue to lead the nation.

The Torah does not hide nor deny Moshe’s mistake, but tells it to us so that we learn from it to adjust to change; to understand that the person of yesterday is not the person of today; and the person of today will not be the same tomorrow. We are to learn the most basic tenet in educating our children, which was later phrased so eloquently by Shlomo Hamelech: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.

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