Chukkat: Being human

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. The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished at the instance of the Lord! Why have you brought the Lord’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? 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!” Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.”
Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (B’midbar 20:1-12)

They bury her at Kadesh beneath the scorching sun
as restless winds torment the barren sand.
He lingers by her grave, his eyes bedewed with tears
trickling like the river drops that spattered on his face
when he floated in his ark of reeds
and she watched over him.

Wearily he turns away, and then they start again
these people, moaning and complaining.
He wonders to himself, with a fierceness born of sorrow,
whether they will ever learn. His temper blazes
like the thicket enveloped by flames, but he, devoured,
lashes out, and as the fire dies away
he tastes the bitter ashes.

He turns once more to tend his flock,
to plead with God on their behalf, knowing
that he will not lead them
to the promised land
yet caring that God’s covenant
will ever be fulfilled.

In a commentary on Parashat Chukkat from 2012, Professor Arnold M Eisen addresses the humanity of Moses. He opens the discussion: “Moses is so very human in this week’s portion. He loses his sister to death at the start of chapter 20, and his brother at the end of that same chapter. In between, he is told by God that he will not live to see the fulfillment of his life’s work (guiding his people into the Promised Land) either – because, being human rather than perfect, he does not follow God’s instructions precisely enough when performing a miracle that elicits water from a rock. Readers of the Torah suspect that, by this point in his long life, Moses does not much care for the work he does so selflessly. He seems worn down by the incessant kvetching of his people, and has long since grown used to the inscrutability of the God he loves and serves. We are drawn to this man. We want to know him and learn from him. In this way as in so many others, he accomplishes the Torah’s wishes, if not God’s. He draws us into the story, and makes us proud to be its heirs.”
Professor Eisen wonders, as have countless scholars before him, what it is about Moses’s behavior at the rock that earns him such a harsh punishment. He cites an excursus by biblical scholar Rabbi Jacob Milgrom in his volume: The JPS Commentary: Numbers, “Down through the ages, the sin of Moses, as described in Numbers 20:1–13, has been regarded as one of the Gordian knots of the Bible: The punishment is clear, but what is the crime?” Rabbi Milgrom suggests three categories for the 10 major interpretations suggested through the ages for why Moses is punished: striking instead of speaking to the rock; displaying character traits unworthy of a leader; and uttering inappropriate words. Prof Eisen believes that Moses is punished for all of these. He notes, “Moses’s crime is deviating publicly from God’s command; letting frustration get the better of his speech; and, in so doing, showing himself to be “human all too human” rather than the exemplar of virtue God needs him to be at that moment, as at every moment. God’s punishment is harsh, but it was also fitting. Moses no longer has what it takes to lead his extremely human people in extremely trying circumstances. Someone else will do the job.”
Professor Eisen considers the story here: the people have just buried Miriam and immediately gang up against Moses and Aaron one more time. They seem not to have learned from the severe consequences of previous rebellions, or they are past caring. They have a slew of complaints ending with the lack of water. Moses and Aaron are commanded by God, as before, to take the rod that Moses used to perform other Divine miracles in the wilderness (Shemot 14:16, 17:1-7,9), to assemble the community and “speak to [or at] the rock” so that water for the people will spring forth. Moses and Aaron take up the rod and assemble the congregation as instructed, but then, says Prof Eisen, “Moses strays from his orders in two fascinating (and utterly human) ways.”
Moses says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (B’midbar 20:10). He addresses the people derogatorily by calling them “rebels” and he strikes the rock, not once but twice. And all this in full view of the people. God’s displeasure is not slow in coming: “Because you did not trust Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (B’midbar 20:12)
Prof Eisen asks, “Shouldn’t Moses know better? One notes in his defense that at an earlier point in the Israelites’ journey (Exod. 17:6), God responded to a similar uprising occasioned by lack of water with an order to get water from a rock by striking it with the rod. What is the point of Moses bringing the rod this time, too, if not to use it as he did before? That is precisely the point, I believe. The Creator of Heaven and Earth is not bound by precedent. This is not magic but miracle: no formulaic actions or utterances are allowed. (Milgrom makes this clear in his commentary.) What is more, God’s commands, when they are as specific as this one, do not allow for anything less than specific obedience from those closest to God. Moses strikes the rock without having been commanded to do so. The gesture at that moment is utterly natural — that is to say, human. The man’s sister has just died, he is frustrated beyond measure by Israelite whining, and he was told the last time this situation occurred to use the rod in his hand for striking. So he does. But humanity is not a valid excuse.” Prof Eisen also focuses on the subsequent words that Moses uses, which he believes betray a similar deviation from God’s intention: “God says, “You shall draw (vehotzeta) water from the rock for them,” with the verb in second-person singular. It is only natural that Moses should say to the people, “shall we draw (notzi) water?” Some commentators believe that, in doing so, he takes credit for the miracle himself rather than awarding it to God. But Moses can surely be forgiven for his phrasing, being human. He merely follows God’s own grammar, in fact adjusting it to include Aaron (“we”) rather than speaking only of himself.” But Prof Eisen suggests that the commentators have some basis for their criticism. He says, “His sarcasm seems to place performance of the miracle in doubt, and Moses does omit any mention of God. Perhaps he feels that by this point in events, after God has fed the people with manna, found them water more than once, and sent more quail than they can eat — not to mention causing the ground to open miraculously and swallow up the leaders of Korah’s rebellion, and — oh yes — the minor matter of splitting the Red Sea and drowning Pharaoh’s army — after all that, perhaps it might not be necessary to explain that God is saving Israel yet again and that he is only the intermediary.” He notes that in the end, God is sanctified despite Moses and Aaron, actually “through the very fact of their punishment.”
Prof Eisen notes that the punishment exposes that Moses and Aaron, and Miriam also, despite being leaders, are flawed mortals, like all the people. They too make fatal mistakes. He adds that Aaron dies shortly after this episode, and subsequently the people start complaining again, at which point God sends serpents to bite and kill them. The people then plead with Moses to intercede for them, and he does (fashioning a copper serpent which, when looked at, provides a cure for bitten victims). By this point, Prof Eisen says that Moses must be wondering, as we, the readers do, how on earth these people are going to get to their final destination with their very human weaknesses. He concludes “That may be why, in answer to Moses’s doubt and ours, the Torah immediately tells of battles that the Israelites win. We hear of a “Book of the Wars of the Lord,” and are given snatches from collected poetry of triumph — as if to assure Moses, tired and resigned after decades in the wilderness, that the promise of the Promised Land stands. His people will get there without him.
“Moses understands that he is not the leader to take them there. He is more than ready to hand over responsibility to someone else. This is the last — and perhaps the greatest — of the many lessons he teaches us about being human and trying one’s best as a human being to do the will of God.”


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