9 Tamuz 5775
Erev Shabbat Kodesh
Parashat Hukkat: New rules for a new generation
by Daniel Pinner
Having received the statute of the Red Cow (Numbers 19), the method whereby a Jew who has become ritually defiled by coming into contact with a dead body becomes purified, the generation which had grown up as slaves in Egypt completes its task.
There follows an empty 38-year period, about which the Torah is silent. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Hertz (Chief Rabbi of the British Empire 1913-1946), “the reason is not far to seek. The men of that generation had been found wanting, and condemned to a dying life in the wilderness. Their story was, therefore, of no further spiritual value to the Israel of the future”.
The Torah records that “the Children of Israel, the entire community, came to the Zin Desert in the first month, and the nation dwelt in Kadesh” (Numbers 20:1), in the fortieth and final year of their desert wanderings, either on the 1st of Nissan (Megillat Ta’anit 17 and Seder Olam Rabbah 9) or the 10th of Nisan (Targum Yonatan to Numbers 20:1).
The very first event that happened in that final year was that “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1).
Shortly afterwards the Torah records that Aaron died at Mount Hor, at the border of the land of Edom, where he was buried (vs. 23-29). Later on, when recapping the desert wanderings (33:38-39), the Torah will add the detail that Aaron died on the 1st of Av, four months after his sister Miriam.
And between the deaths of these two leaders occurred another event, the consequences of which occupy virtually all of our commentators.
“There was no water for the community, so they assembled against Moshe and Aaron, and the nation confronted Moshe, saying: If only we had died, as our brothers died before Hashem! Why have you brought Hashem’s assembly to this desert to die there – us and our animals? And why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this bad place – not a place of seeds or figs or grapes or pomegranates? There isn’t even water to drink!” (20:2-5).
Moshe and Aaron turned from the Children of Israel into the Tent of Meeting, where God instructed Moshe: “Take the Staff, and assemble the community – you and Aaron your brother – and speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give its waters; thus you will bring water out of the rock, and you will water the community and their animals” (v. 8).
Moshe struck the rock twice with his Staff, water gushed forth, and the entire nation and their animals drank.
But then comes the puzzling riposte: “Hashem said to Moshe and Aaron: Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel – therefore you will not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them” (v. 12).
The commentators grapple with this. What sin had Moshe and Aaron committed? How exactly did they not believe in God?
Let us recall two very similar incidents which had happened some 39 years earlier. Three days after the Splitting of the Red Sea, the Children of Israel came to Marah, where the waters were undrinkable because they were so bitter (Exodus 15:23). When they complained to Moshe, Moshe shouted out to God; He indicated a tree to Moshe, which Moshe threw into the waters, which thereupon became sweet and drinkable (v. 25).
And about a month later they camped in Rephidim, where again there was no water, and again the nation demanded that Moshe supply water. “And Hashem said to Moshe: Pass before the nation, taking some of the Elders of Israel with you; and take your Staff with which you struck the River Nile in your hand…and strike the rock; and water will flow out from it, and the nation will drink” (17:5-6).
So when Moshe struck the rock in Kadesh in the Zin Desert in the fortieth year of wandering, he was actually following the precedent which God Himself had commanded decades earlier in Rephidim.
Rashi (commentary to Numbers 20:10, 11, and 12) suggests that Moshe’s sin was both angrily reprimanding the Children of Israel for their demands for water and striking the rock instead of talking to it as God had commanded.
But as the Ramban (commentary to Numbers 20:1) notes, the fact that God commanded Moshe to “take the Staff” could have implied that he use it to strike the rock: “If He wanted him solely to speak [to the rock], then why hold the Staff in his hand?”
In his commentary to verse 3, Rashi notes their plaint – “If only we had died, as our brothers died before Hashem!” – and comments: “Death by thirst is worse than death by plague”. That is to say, when facing the horrifying prospect of a slow and tortuous death by thirst in the desert, they envied their fellow-Jews whom God had killed by plague: at least that death was mercifully quick!
Hence, Rashi seems to imply, the Children of Israel were justified in clamouring for water, and wanting it quickly.
Certainly, as the Rambam (Shmoneh Perakim, Chapter 4) points out, God was not angry with the Jews for demanding water. And so, the Rambam concludes, Moshe and Aaron’s sin lay in implying that God was angry with the Children of Israel for their demands: “Hear now, you rebels…” (v. 10) implies anger – but it was Moshe’s anger, not God’s.
I tentatively offer an idea which synthesises these commentaries:
In none of the cases when the Children of Israel demanded water was God angry with them: it was a legitimate demand. On the first two occasions, God directed Moshe to sweeten the water (in Marah) and to bring forth water from the rock (in Rephidim) through actions which connoted physical strength – throwing a tree into the bitter waters (in Marah) and physically striking the rock (in Rephidim).
For sure, these events were miraculous – and they demonstrated physical might. The same Staff which had defeated and destroyed Egypt was still as powerful as ever – albeit working for their good and not as a threat, but still a reminder of the immense force that God had unleashed against the mighty oppressor-nation.
That was appropriate for a generation which had grown up as slaves, oppressed under Egyptian whips, a generation which was destined to pass away in the desert, a generation which would be found wanting, and condemned to a dying life in the wilderness, a generation whose story was of no further spiritual value to the Israel of the future.
But this was singularly inappropriate for a new generation, a generation which had grown up free in the desert, a generation which stood on the verge of national freedom and independence in its own Land.
Brandishing the Staff and displaying its power, reminding the nation of what awaited them if they challenged God, was an appropriate and maybe necessary component of educating and re-educating the generation which was still infused with slave mentality.
The generation of Egypt needed a stern leader; they needed Moshe, whose motto was “Let the law pierce the mountain!” (Sanhedrin 6b; Yalkut Shimoni, Malachi 588).
But the generation which was to be entrusted with building a nation-state had to be imbued with the spirit of freedom. The generation of freedom needed a different leader, a different leadership.
Moshe was the perennial outsider, the Jew who had been taken from his parents’ house as a baby and raised as an Egyptian prince, who had spent his youth with a Midianite ex-minister, who only rejoined his people when he was eighty, who was never really fully one of the people whom he led.
That stern, aloof love was what the nation needed to wean them from their slave mentality, their inferiority complexes which had been bred by generations of persecution.
When Moshe struck the rock in Kadesh, he demonstrated that his leadership was not appropriate for leading the nation in the Land of Israel. In Egypt, yes; in the desert, yes; but not for a nation building its independence.
In two weeks’ time, in Parashat Pinchas, after the débâcle with the Moabite girls in which 24,000 Jews died, God reminds Moshe of this incident in the Zin Desert, reiterating that because of it he would not enter the Land of Israel.
And then God continued: “Take to yourself Joshua son of Nun…and lay your hand on him…and place some of your majesty upon him” (Numbers 27:18-20) – “‘some of your majesty’, but not all of it” (Bava Batra 75a). As befits a free and independent nation, Joshua was to rule by consent.
And such continued Jewish history in the Land of Israel: the Judges who ruled the nation for the first 370 years ruled by consent. The monarchy was established, with King Saul as first King of Israel, by popular demand (1 Samuel 8:4-10:24).
And according to this understanding, God did not punish Moshe by decreeing that he would not lead the Children of Israel into their Land. Instead, He demonstrated that Moshe was not the appropriate leader for that new generation living the new reality.
And this also explains why Miriam and Aaron both died in that same period. The three great leaders who had led Israel in the final year of slavery, who had led them in overthrowing the Egyptian tyrants, who had defeated that mighty kingdom, who had led them firmly out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai, and through the desert for nigh on 40 years – those were not the appropriate leaders for the new generation in their era of freedom and independence.
And commensurate with this, the prophet Hosea looks forward to the future time: “And it will be on that day, says Hashem, you [Israel] will call Me Ishi, and you will no longer call Me Ba’ali” (Hosea 2:18) – “Ishi”, my Husband, literally “my Man”, instead of “Ba’ali”, my Husband, literally “my Master”.
Rashi explains: “‘You will call Me Ishi’ – you will worship Me out of love and not out of fear; ‘Ishi’, an expression of ‘ishut’ [marital relationship, denoting sensual love], the love of youth; ‘Ba’ali’ – an expression of mastery”.
That is to say – if in the present time it is appropriate for us to relate to God as a Master, in the future time to come we will relate to Him as a loving bride relating to her equally loving Groom.
These are the new rules for the new generation – a generation of freedom, a generation of independence, a generation ruled by love.