Minutes of Torah

This week’s parashat Chukat is best known for the incident for which Moses himself is denied entrance to the Promised Land. The narrative begins with the death of his sister Miriam, and the subsequent dearth of water for the people.

Understandably, the Israelites complain about the absence of water.  Moses and Aaron are then instructed by God to “take the rod … and speak to the rock before their eyes that it may give forth its water.”

Moses has been previously called upon several times to address the people’s complaints about the quality or lack of water. Indeed, shortly after the Israelites had crossed the Sea of Reeds, God specifically instructs Moses to bring forth water from a rock by striking it. This episode in our parashat Chukat thus appears to be a kind of ‘rerun’ — albeit with a very different outcome for Moses and Aaron.

Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses strikes the rock after telling the Israelites: “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring forth water out of this rock for you?” As a result, God tells Moses and Aaron that “because [they] did not have faith in [God] … [they] shall not” enter the Promised Land.

The severity of the consequences meted out to Moses and Aaron led commentators to inquire as to the nature of their transgression, and what made it so problematic as to justify this extreme penalty. From among the numerous explanations, I would like to share a unique perspective to this story provided by the Hassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

In his view, this passage teaches that a leader whose influence on the community is achieved through harsh words of rebuke is more likely to impose his or her own personal will, as opposed to the community reaching the same result through their own decision – but which, in the long term, will produce failure.

Here, in our portion, Moses admonished Israel with harsh words, “Listen, you rebels.” This rebuke inevitably led him to continue such aggressive behavior to strike the rock. But, if he had initially spoke with the Israelites with a respectful voice, with that peace in his heart he would have followed God’s instruction “to speak to the rock.”

Moses lost his composure; and rather than seeing the good in Israel, he saw only their failings, and he gave voice to his anger and frustration.

Emotional agitation can provide the energy and strength to vigorously pursue the right path.  But we must be careful to see that it doesn’t throw us off our equilibrium. Even with an agitated awareness, we still need to find an inner calm to provide an overall direction to our actions. We need to still ourselves long enough to notice agitated thoughts and feelings within us. At that point, we see more clearly what is before us, and consider all options which may be available to us, and not just those produced by our anxiety.

According to the Mussar tradition, this state of equanimity is one we should aspire to on a permanent basis. This enables the stressful thoughts to dissipate, but still leaving enough energy to fuel wise action. This process requires a degree of detachment from our own anger, pride, and other incendiary emotions that we have — powerful inner forces that can lead us astray. Then, we can approach the problem from an undisturbed place even amid the storms surrounding us, and our ability to express our free will — as opposed to an agitated free will — is preserved. 

Had Moses been able to do that, perhaps he would indeed have had ‘faith’ with his people and with God. Instead, he reacted emotionally to the agitation provoked by the situation, speaking angrily and self-righteously; and striking rather than speaking to the rock from a place of calm restraint. 

Certainly, each of us can easily identify with Moses. We experience many situations which stir us up to the point that we become unmoored, and act from our lesser selves. But if we notice the agitated energy stirring within us and can stay connected to the still waters that lie deep within us, we will be able to have ‘faith’ in our actions. And with that faith, or as we might say, ‘confidence’, we can better respond to the problem before us which is causing us so much tumult. 

Shabbat Shalom!

Rav Julius Rabinowitz


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