By Rabbi Craig Axler
This week’s Torah portion is Chukat, Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
In this week’s Torah portion, we find several key moments that advance the narrative of the Jewish people and the stories of our wilderness leaders, Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Most noticeable is the account of Moses striking the rock to produce water for the desperately dehydrated Israelite people who have (yet again) leveled that almost laughable allegation: “Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!”
Instructed by God to speak to the rock to produce water, Moses addresses the people: “Listen up, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” striking the rock twice with his staff. This angry, even violent response is the moment when Moses loses the right to bring the people of Israel into the Land. It will ultimately be Joshua who leads the people in, and only after Moses’ death. Many lessons can be drawn from this moment. Actions have consequences. Our fates often change in a single instant. Responding from anger almost always yields a less desirable outcome.
Something that is easy to miss in reading this story is the broader context. The chapter begins with the death of Miriam in one concise verse: “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there.” Immediately, the people are without water and the showdown at the rock ensues. But our attention must be drawn to the impact the loss of Miriam has on her brothers, Moses and Aaron. It is impossible not to feel compassion for these two leaders, thrown immediately into yet another communal crisis in the very moment they lose their beloved sister, one third of their leadership team.
That Moses responds in anger becomes infinitely more understandable when we see him as an individual in the depths of mourning for Miriam (it was she who saved him at the banks of the Nile all those years ago), and yet he is being denied even a moment of quiet in which to process his loss. Miriam is barely in the ground when the people voice their complaint.
Traditional commentators attempt to identify what about Moses’ specific sin was so egregious that it warrants God’s punishment. Among the suggestions is the idea that Moses speaks with particular harshness, even calling the Israelites “you rebels” – a term that both fits and seems to lack compassion for a people who are thirsty and hungry in the wilderness. A fascinating Hebrew play is embedded in the text, one that I first encountered in an essay by scholar Ora Horn Prouser in The Torah, A Women’s Commentary. She points out that the unvocalized Hebrew for “rebels” MoRIM is identical to the unvocalized name of Moses’ beloved sister MiRIaM. Prouser writes: “The verbal coincidence may intimate that Moses’ behavior has as much to do with losing Miriam as with his frustration with the Israelite people. It suggests that when faced with the task of producing water, Moses recalls Miriam as his older sister, his co-leader, and perhaps most of all, the clever caretaker who guarded him at the Nile.”
The result is the same for Moses: a tragic lost opportunity at the very moment of mourning his sister. Perhaps the context inspires in us some compassion for the human being that Moses was, together with our idealized vision of him as a leader. Leaders are, after all, just like you and me.
Rabbi Craig Axler is rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Fulton, Md.