Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 23 June 2018 / 10 Tammuz 5778

Parshat Chukat

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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When Words Speak Louder than Actions

Upon Miriam’s death, the miraculous well of water that had accompanied the people for these long years in the desert dried up. The panic-stricken people approached Moshe and Aharon en masse, claiming it would have been better to die a natural death in the wilderness (as their brothers had) than suffer and die of thirst. They accused Moshe and Aharon of leading the people to their untimely and torturous demise, rather than to the promised Land.

This leads to the event known as mei meriva, the fatal event that deprived Moshe and Aharon entry into the Land. Moshe is instructed to take his staff, and, together with Aharon, assemble the people. Moshe and Aharon are to speak to the rock to bring forth water for the people and their animals. Moshe did take the staff, but instead of speaking to the rock, he strikes the rock twice. Water gushed forth abundantly, and the people drank. Moshe and Aharon are sternly chastised, “Because you did not hold fast to Me, to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, you shall not bring this community into the Land that I have given them.”

But what was so terrible about Moshe’s conduct? The water miraculously flowed, and the people’s trust was restored. And if G-d did not want Moshe to use the staff, why was he instructed to bring it in the first place?

The staff has not been seen since the war with Amalek, some 38 years earlier. Since then, it was deposited in the Sanctuary, next to the Ark which held the Tablets. The staff in the hand of Moshe identified him as G-d’s emissary. When Moshe moved that staff, whenever he inclined it, or struck a blow with it prior to an event of which advance warning had been given, this indicated that the event about to occur was the result of instantaneous, direct Divine intervention.

Now, the people accused Moshe and Aharon of betraying their Divine mission, and instead, maliciously bringing the people to a waterless place. G-d instructs Moshe to take the staff as an assertion that Moshe has never, not even for one moment, ceased to be the emissary of G-d. But the staff was not to be used: If Moshe were to strike the rock, as he did when instructed to at the start of their desert sojourn, that would give the impression that the water was coming forth as a new Divine intervention, provoked by the people’s uproar. But this was not the message the people needed. This would not put to rest their suspicion that Moshe and Aharon acted of their own accord, and they would be free to assume that their stormy agitation was needed to provoke G-d’s intervention.

Instead, the miracle was supposed to teach them that the required water had already been provided by G-d, at this predetermined place where G-d instructed them to encamp. No new miracle would be required; one word from Moshe would suffice. Had the miracle been performed in this way, the people would have learned that under G-d’s guidance they could banish all worries. They could be certain of receiving the right help at the right time — even without Moshe’s staff.

Rav Hirsch here quotes his teacher, Rabbi Chacham Bernays, who explains why this was a critical message for the people to receive before entry to the Land. Now, the visible miracles of the wilderness would be replaced by a new era of invisible guidance. The staff of Moshe in the wilderness would be replaced by the word of Moshe, from now on and forever.

  • Source: Commentary, Bamidbar 20:8-11

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