by Rabbi Stephen Fuchs, incoming president of the
World Union for Progressive Judaism
The story of Moses striking the rock in Parashat Hukkat has great meaning for me as I begin to serve as President of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.
The story takes place near the end of the Children of Israel’s 40-year-long trek through the wilderness. As they have so often, they are once again carping at Moses for making them leave Egypt “to bring us to this wretched place… (where) there is not even water to drink.” (Numbers 20:5)
Moses and Aaron retreat to the Tent of Meeting where the presence of the Almighty appears to them and offers clear instruction: “Assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” With these words The Eternal One called upon Moses to demonstrate that God would provide the water to slake the peoples thirst and give them the strength to complete the journey.”
But Moses, weary of the people’s complaining and mourning the recent death of his sister Miriam, snaps. He and Aaron assemble the people before the rock where taking the staff of leadership in his hands, Moses screams at the people: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10) Then he strikes the rock twice, and the water flows forth.
We have seen Moses’ temper get the better of him before when he smites the taskmaster beating a slave in Egypt, and when he smashes God’s sacred tablets when he sees the Children of Israel are worshipping the golden calf. In striking the rock instead of addressing it, Moses makes it look as though it was his power, not God’s, that made the rock yield water for the people. The Eternal One’s reaction is swift and despite Moses’ pleading (See Deuteronomy 3:23-26) irrevocable. “Because you did not trust me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them. “ (Numbers 20:12)
I have lost count of the number of times that Torah study students have complained to me over the years: “God was so unfair! The punishment far exceeds the crime! After all Moses had done in returning to Egypt, confronting Pharaoh, leading the people out of Egypt, receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, and leading the people for 40 years in the desert, God denies Moses his greatest dream, seeing the Promised Land!”
Even though Moses offense was far from trivial, one might conclude that the Eternal One’s sentence was harsh. Often, though, the Torah does not teach us about the way life should be but the way life is. There is much more to consider here than God’s reaction to this one incident and God’s reaction to it.
Moses is without question the “greatest Jew” in the Bible and all of history! The Torah eulogizes Moses with unparalleled praise: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses –whom Adonai singled out face to face …for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” (DT 34:10-12)
As great as Moses was, though, his time of leadership had passed. While he was the ideal leader to liberate our people, bring us to Mount Sinai, and guide us through the wilderness, the task before the Children of Israel as the journey ended required a new type of leader. An aged Moses was simply no longer capable of launching and leading the military campaign involved in conquering the Promised Land. The need now was for a vigorous, young Joshua to lead the Children of Israel forward.
“But,” many have asked, “couldn’t Moses just go with the people into the land even if he was no longer to lead them?”
Hardly! Given all that Moses had done, many people would still have looked to him as their leader. If Joshua said, “Charge!” many would pause to see if Moses approved of Joshua’s order or not. In a time of war there is no luxury for such division and delay.
The lesson for all of us in this parasha is that different times and circumstances call for different types of leaders. The hard reality is that Moses’ time for leadership – as it eventually will for all of us – had ended.
We have seen this reality in modern history as well. For very good reason, at the end of 1949
named Winston Churchill “Man of the Half Century.” As
reported: “That a free world survived in 1950 … was due in large measure to his exertions.” (
, January 3, 1950) Yet, immediately after the war, the British electorate perceiving the need for a different type of peace-time leader voted Churchill out of office. In his words: “I wielded for five years and three months of world war (the chief power in the State), at the end of which time, all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally, or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate.”
For me the study of Torah has unsurpassed meaning when we can see ourselves in the text and glean lessons that add meaning and understanding to our own lives. Parashat Hukkat teaches all of us who would be leaders – whether as synagogue rabbis, organizational heads, congregational officers or committee chairs – is that our time of leadership is finite. גם זו יעבור “This too shall pass,” and we – just as Moses and Churchill – must accept that reality whether or not it seems fair.
As I assume the sacred role with which you have entrusted me, I promise to lead as wisely and courageously as I can as long as the Almighty and our lay leaders deem wise. And then as Moses did to Joshua (see DT 31:7-8) l hope to pass the reigns graciously on to another with the prayer that my efforts have been of some benefit to our people and our world.