Parshat Chukat: Speak Softly, but Carry a Big Stick

Moses blew it. Shoulda spoke to the rock, but hit the rock instead. Too bad, now he can’t enter the land of Israel. Famous story; famous conclusion (Bamidbar 20:1-13).

Now it’s time to try to understand what’s going on, but beyond the 5th grade level.

As usual, the questions first?

1) Moses is a pretty smart guy; WHY did he change things up here?

2) Why is God being so ‘petty’, as it were? If Moses accomplished the mission, what the heck difference does it make if he hit, spoke, kissed, kicked, whatever? A miracle is a miracle, no? And even if there’s an act of disobedience here, does the punishment fit the crime?

3) Earlier in the Chumash (End of Beshalach), a very similar episode occurs, but there Moses is instructed to hit the rock! Some say that really it’s same same story, but one is from E and the other from J, but I have a better answer.

4) At the outset of this episode, God instructs Moses to take his staff. Is God setting Moses up? Why does he need to take the staff if he’s just going to talk to the rock?

5) The most well-known explanation of Moses’ sin (and there are many explanations, as the Torah itself doesn’t spell out the sin other than saying that there was a failure to sanctify God before the people), that he hit the rock instead of talking to it, is the position that Rashi takes on location. However, Rashi to BT Sanhedrin 101b s.v. על מי מריבה says that Moses’ sin was in saying ‘Listen up, rebels!’, i.e., in the way he addressed the Israelites.

6) On the topic of a failure to create a ‘Kiddush Hashem’, the Israelites themselves had no knowledge of what God actually communicated to Moses, so from their perspective, they could detect nothing wrong! So what’s missing that this is considered a failure to sanctify God’s name?

Just thinking about these questions can guide an approach to the episode.

There are different ways to get someone to bend to your will. Some situations require force, and others call for dialogue. For example (I heard this in a talk by Alan Dershowitz), when one’s dollar bill is swallowed by a soda machine, it doesn’t do much to reason with it, even if you’re absolutely correct. Occasionally, though, kicking it gets the job done.

Moses and the Israelites are at the end of their 40-year sojourn in the desert. Moses’ sister Miriam has already died. And then the people go ahead and start complaining like they had done all the way at the beginning of the 40 years. No doubt, they have a legitimate claim – the lack of water – but their response is inappropriate and out of proportion (kind of like the Palestinians). Moses responds in anger and frustration, calling them ‘rebels’, and striking the rock.

Imagine Moses’ frustration at the Israelites making the same petty complaints that they made 40 years prior! Does he feel he’s accomplished anything with them? Have they learned anything?

However, God’s instructions to Moses reflect that the Israelites have grown up a bit. This group was not born into slavery and idolatry, rather into the free desert community. They were an intelligent, mature audience. They could listen, understand, and make choices.

God's instructions are not about the rock; they're about effective projection of power. The first generation lacked the subtlety to understand anything beyond brute force. Striking the rock, pure force, impresses them. The second generation can understand reason. They can make a kal va-chomer for themselves (see Rashi 20:12). Thus, God instructed Moses to talk to the rock, to reason, to engage in dialogue and convince without imposing will by force. Granted, it’s important to display power in this type of situation, but it’s also important not to wield it. Speak softly, but carry a big stick.

Moses, however, treated them like they were that first generation of freed slaves, like children. He doubted their ability to seriously reflect and understand and to learn from their mistakes. This couldn’t have helped his relationship with the generation that was destined to enter and conquer the Land of Israel, and displayed his lack of qualification to continue to lead the Israelites.

At a certain point, even the best parent has to let go. Spoon feeding is unhealthy after a certain point. A parent can’t treat an adolescent the same way he or she would treat a child. Thus, God informs Moses that the Israelites will go on without him.

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