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Chukat 5772

By: Rav David Milston

Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters – Rav David Milston


“Then Bnei Yisrael came – the whole assembly – into the Wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh, and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation, and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon. And the people quarreled with Moshe saying, 'If only we had perished as our brethren perished before Hashem! Why have you brought the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness to die there, we and our animals? And why did you have us ascend from Egypt to bring us to this evil place? Not a place of seed or fig or grape or pomegranate and there is no water to drink!'


And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and fell on their faces. And the glory of Hashem appeared to them.


And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, 'Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. And you shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.'

And Moshe took the staff from before Hashem, as He had commanded him. And Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock and he said to them, 'Listen now, O rebels. Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?' Then Moshe raised his arm and struck the rock with his staff twice; abundant water came forth and the assembly and their animals drank.


And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, 'Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this congregation to the Land that I have given them.' They are the waters of strife (Mei Meriva), where Bnei Yisrael contended with Hashem, and He was sanctified by them."

(Bamidbar, 20:1-13)


This is one of the most tragic stories in the entire Torah. By the end of this week’s parashaAm Yisrael's three most important leaders, the people who had led Bnei Yisrael from slavery to freedom, are denied their ultimate dream at the last minute. Imagine working so hard for so long only to be barred from attaining one's burning life goals; to do all the college course work, turn up for every lecture, only to be denied entry into the graduation ceremony!


Miriam, who saved Moshe's life and ensured his education, who led the women in song on the banks of Yam Suf, dies now too, presumably of old age. However, one cannot help but question the timing. Her passing occurred before the events of Mei Meriva. She was not involved in either the sin of the Golden Calf or the sin of the spies. So why was she denied access to Eretz Yisrael?[1]

Aharon HaCohen, the spiritual leader of Bnei Yisrael, pursuer of peace, loyal and humble deputy to Moshe, seems so passive in the entire episode quoted above. He simply accompanied his brother, yet Hashem groups him together with Moshe in the 'sin' of Mei Meriva. He is held equally responsible and also denied access to Eretz Yisrael. He does not object or ask for mercy and he dies immediately. Again, the question is why?


Moshe is everything to Bnei Yisrael. He struggled with them in Egypt, led them out of slavery, through Yam Suf and onto Har Sinai. He received the Torah and brought it to the people. For 40 years, he raised the people as a father raises his child. Nurturing a new generation and building a force capable of spiritual and physical survival in Eretz Yisrael.


Of the three leaders, Moshe is most obviously at fault during the events ofMei Meriva. Nevertheless, it seems unnecessarily harsh to deny him his coveted dream of entering Eretz Yisrael because of this one little mistake.


The Ramban only confirms this notion when he declares, "the matter is a great secret of the mysteries of Torah".


Nevertheless, we will attempt to understand what we can from the events of Mei Meriva through the prism of three commentators over the next three sichot: Rashi, the Abarbanel and the Rambam. Because each approach alludes to such fundamental principles, I feel each deserves asicha in its own right.


Our objective is not only to try and understand why all three leaders were punished so severely but to appreciate the fundamental flaws each of theRishonim specify. It is important to note that the three approaches are not diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive in nature. Let us first examine Rashi's opinion.


Rashi interprets events more or less literally. Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon to speak to the rock but they do not do so. If they had, water would have flowed from the rock and Hashem's name would have been sanctified. The entire people would have understood the lesson. If a 'deaf and dumb' rock; a rock that does not need sustenance, carries out the word of Hashem, then surely a people who perpetually receive immeasurable gifts from Him should at the least do the same.[2]


Yet this approach leaves us with at least two important questions:


1. If Moshe and Aharon were meant to speak to the rock, why were they commanded to take the staff with them? As we know, Moshe had once been commanded to produce water from a rock by striking it with his staff,[3] so surely he could be forgiven for misinterpreting the Almighty's comments on this occasion? For what other reason was he instructed to take his staff with him if not, metaphorically, to "speak to the rock" by hitting it?


2. Even if we accept Rashi’s interpretation that a Kiddush Hashem would have taken place had Moshe spoken to the rock and 'produced' water, it seems no less miraculous if water emerges from a rock as a result of being hit by a stick. Even if speech is less physical than striking, it is still an incredible miracle to hit a rock and produce water. God’s name was still sanctified so was there any real educational harm done? 


At the end of the day, Moshe and Aharon did not do as they were told. They were not told to strike the rock but to talk to it. On the previous occasion inShemot, Moshe was clearly told to strike the rock; here he is told to speak to it. Moshe was apparently wrong to have applied his own interpretation to God's word, especially after being told exactly what to do. This hints at a certain lack of belief.


The Ba'al HaTanya [4] explains that once a person transgresses even the most minor of commandments, they are effectively rebelling against Hashem. If a person truly accepted the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, he would observe even the most tedious of details to the hilt, without reason or rationale.


And that is how our parasha begins. "This is a Torah of Chukat" – of statutes. There are some Mitzvot we think we understand and others we don't, but they carry equal weight. We do not perform Mitzvot because they make sense; we keep Torah for one reason only – because we believe in Hashem, and He commanded us to do so. When we pick and choose what we think we understand and discard the incomprehensible, we are serving ourselves and not the Almighty. And if our rationale collapses would we then cease to perform certain Mitzvot?


Therefore, even though Moshe and Aharon only slightly deviated from their instructions, the implication of their action was a lack of absolute belief in Hashem. They were told to speak and not to smite, period. It was not their responsibility to interpret the instruction.


It is crucial to note that in Moshe's case, failure to do exactly what he was commanded has even greater ramifications. Moshe brought and taught the Torah to Am Yisrael. The Shechinah "spoke through Moshe's throat" (See Ramchal, Derech Hashem Part Three Chapter 5).  He was the direct medium through which God spoke to Am Yisrael. He was like no other prophet, for other prophets would interpret their visions whilst Moshe would simply say it exactly as it was. This had to be, because Moshe was the lawgiver, and to sustain the authenticity of a Torah made in Heaven, there could be no suspicion that he had made up the laws independently.


Hence, Moshe must never be seen to deviate from the exact words of Hashem in any shape or form. If he were to do so, and go unpunished, this could undermine the legitimacy of the entire Torah. Precisely because the Torah was given to the people through Moshe, he must be stricter with himself than any other person.


From Korach until today, there are Jews who challenge the authenticity of Torah from Heaven. People challenge Chazal today, just as Korach attacked Moshe. We must do our utmost to ensure the genuineness of Torah emanating directly from the Almighty; it is the fundamental of Orthodoxy, and the cornerstone of everything we believe in.


There can be no room for doubt. Even the slightest deviation from a direct command had to be dealt with in the most severe fashion. Hence Moshe's punishment.


In the second half of Rashi's comments, he suggests Moshe and Aharon failed in sanctifying Hashem's name to the full.


As we know, producing water from a rock, even by striking it, is no small matter, yet to produce water from a rock by speaking to it, without any real physical action whatsoever, would be an even greater miracle, and thus an even greater sanctification of Hashem's name.


It therefore appears Rashi interprets Moshe and Aharon's sin as follows: in addition to not fulfilling the word of Hashem to the letter, they also did not actualize their potential to the full. They settled for second best in their service of Hashem. For the leaders of Am Yisrael to settle for second best is simply not good enough. They are our mentors and it is to them we look for inspiration!


Although we are far from the spiritual levels of Moshe and Aharon, we would be wise to contemplate our own failings in these areas.


The details of our religious observance are of great importance. We must strive to adhere to every word, to every single halacha in the Shulchan Aruch. If it was written then it is there to be applied.  Furthermore, we must endeavor never to settle for second best in our spiritual lives. None of us are prepared to settle for second best in our secular education, our businesses or our material needs. We should invest at least the same effort into our spiritual lives: more learning, greater concentration in our prayers, more dedication and enthusiasm in the way we relate to each and every mitzvah


And if we are to enter Eretz Yisrael; if we are to realize our ultimate goals, we can only succeed if we adhere to Hashem's commands in every way. And no less importantly, if we do not aim for the ultimate goals in life in the first place, we have absolutely no chance of getting anywhere! Rather like squeezing blood out of a rock!



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