Torah from Around the World #225

By Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black,

Leo Baeck Centre

, East Kew, Melbourne, Australia

In Parshat Chukat we jump forward from the rules of the Red
Heifer (Numbers 19) to the end of the forty years of wandering in the desert,
38 years later. Now the Israelites arrive at Kadesh, in the wilderness of Tzin (Numbers
20:1) and we come to a well-known story.

They are thirsty and once again complaining against Moses
and Aaron: “why did you bring us and our animals here to die?” (Numbers 20:3). God
instructs Moses “You and Aaron, take the rod, assemble the community. Speak to
the rock in their sight, that it should give water” (Numbers 20:4–8). But when
it comes to it, Moses lifts his hand and strikes the rock twice with his rod
(Numbers 20:11). The water gushes out and the community drink.

God, however, tells Moses and Aaron that because they did
not trust in the Eternal One enough to affirm God’s holiness to the people (by
simply speaking to the rock), they will not get to lead the people into the land.
The water is identified as “


– quarrel – because the Israelites
quarreled with God” (Numbers 20:13).

This episode, this place-name and indeed the Israelites’
complaint will all ring bells. Back in Exodus (Parshat B’shalach), the
Israelites had just left Egypt and started their 40 years sojourn in the
desert. There, Moses had struck the rock to produce water, exactly as God had
instructed him. “From the wilderness of Sin they encamped at Refidim – there
was no water. ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our animals?’
the people asked Moses, accusingly. Moses said to God ‘before long they will be
stoning me’. God told him ‘Strike the rock and water will flow and the people
will drink’. Moses did so. The place was called


(trial) – because
the people tried God – and – aha! –


– (quarrel) because the
Israelites quarreled” (Exodus 17:1-7).

Here then are two very similar stories, one at either end of
the forty years of the desert wandering. A thirsty and rebellious people come
to Moses; Moses speaks to God, hits the rock and provides water for the people.
It could be that Sin and Tzin are different spellings of the same place. It
certainly seems that the places are called ‘Merivah’ for the same reason.

So our question is: Why the two stories; what more can we
learn from them? Why does God punish Moses by deciding he will not get to lead
the people into the Promised Land, just because he hits the rock rather than
speaking to it?

For me, the punishment seems disproportionate to the crime. After
all Moses has been through, he is denied the chance to enter the land of Canaan
– because he hit the rock? An inanimate rock – and, it seems, one that he has
hit before, following God’s instruction. And the water pours forth, the people
are satisfied, the miracle has been done. Was it really such a big deal? Perhaps
he should be reprimanded – but to die?

So here is my interpretation. We appear to be back at the
same place, in the same situation – but actually we are nearly forty years on.
Not the same people. In Egypt, authority was represented by violence – whips
and lashes; Moses himself killed the taskmaster and had to flee. For the slave generation,
hitting was power. Hitting the rock was the language they understood back then
– and the water that gushed forth showed that their true ruler – God – was a
loving and life-giving authority – unlike Pharaoh.

But forty years later, we know that virtually all the
generation who had come out of Egypt have died, and a new generation, who have
not known slavery, have grown up in the desert, knowing the loving-kindness and
providence of God, and ready to enter the land. Instead of violence, they have
learned to use discussion, debate – even, dare I say it, argument, to make
their case. Tribunals, courts – justice. And the tools of justice are words. Words
have replaced violence, and this is the structure of society they are to take
into their new land. Hence, for this generation, God instructs Moses to talk to
the Rock. And by hitting it, understandable as it is from his point of view,
Moses shows that he has not changed enough; ultimately, he reverts to violence
when provoked. As Rabbi Gunter Plaut observes of Moses, “he is marked by age
and belongs to the past.” He is not the leader for the new generation, and the
next, and crucial, stage in our story.

So our portion, which starts with the rules of the Red
Heifer, actually reveals a message about the changing needs of leadership as
situations change. How urgent is that need for Israel today! I was there during
Pesach. Did you know that the Temple Institute in Jerusalem is busy preparing
for the building of a Third Temple? The architect’s plans are drawn up. The
priestly garments are made. They are trying to breed a pure, red heifer for the
purification ritual outlined in our portion (which an industrial chemist friend
of mine is sure is actually instructions on how to make soap!). When I visited
the Temple Institute exhibition twenty years ago, they had a full sized
Menorah, carved in wax, waiting for a millionaire to donate the gold to cast
it. Today, a Russian Jew has done just that, and the Menorah has been made. It
has also literally moved towards the Temple Mount – it is now housed in a giant
glass cabinet on the steps overlooking the Western Wall. There have been
several serious attempts to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the oldest shrine in
the Muslim world. Can you imagine the reaction? As Progressive Jews we
recognise that Judaism has moved forward – that God does not require animal
sacrifices, that for two thousand years, we have gathered and prayed wherever a
community came together around the world, that we choose knowledgeable,
educated and charismatic leaders from across the Jewish community – women as
well as men. Today, in Israel and the wider Jewish world, we need strong clear
leadership towards harmony and understanding, towards mutual respect, justice
and peace – not back to priesthood, centralization, sacrifice – and

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