Chukkat: Words not blows

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?…There is not even water to drink!” …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. (B’midbar 20:2-11)

The rock is set before us
unmoving and unmoved.

We know that there is water,
a latent crystal stream
to quench our thirst
and tend all life
but it eludes us;
there are words to utter
soft and clear but
we have been before
in this same place
and in our pain
we shun the words;

we strike the rock
and only bitterness spills forth.

In this week’s parasha, Chukkat, we learn how the Israelites arrive in the wilderness of Zin, and Miriam dies and is buried in Kadesh. There is no water and the people launch a fractious diatribe against Moses and Aaron. Moses and Aaron seek out God’s presence and He instructs them to take the staff but to tell the rock to yield its water. Moses takes the rod, and assembles the people as commanded, but then he departs from instructions. He says, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (B’midbar 20:10). Moses then strikes the rock twice. Water gushes forth to quell the thirst of man and beast. God then tells the brothers that because they failed to sanctify Him in front of the Israelites, they will not lead the people into the promised land. He adds that those waters that flowed forth were to be called “Mei Merivah – waters of Merivah” alluding to the people’s quarrel with God through which He affirmed His sanctity. Subsequently Aaron dies at Mount Hor and his son Elazar succeeds him.

This striking episode has generated enormous discussion among the commentators who wonder what exactly was Moses’ sin. Could it have been so heinous as to deny the fulfillment of his dream of leading this rebellious people that he has shepherded for so long, to their ultimate destination?

In the JPS Commentary: Numbers, Rabbi Jacob Milgrom says, “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?” (448). Rabbi Milgrom classifies 10 major interpretations suggested through the ages into three categories: striking the rock rather than speaking to it; displaying unworthy character traits given his leadership status; speaking inappropriately to the people.

It is noteworthy that this incident occurs in the fortieth and final year of wandering, before entry to the promised land. The older generation has died. This is the new generation (plus the tribe of Levi, and Joshua and Calev). We read “The community was without water…”(B’midbar 20:2). If we look back to Shemot 17:4, shortly after the miraculous crossing of the sea, we encounter the people’s first complaint of thirst. This was way before God’s decree that the Children of Israel would delay their entry to the land. So these two episodes are bookends of sorts around the forty-year odyssey through the wilderness.

In a commentary from 2009,, in which she too ponders why Moses was denied entry to the land, Dr Deborah Miller suggests that when Moses calls the people “rebels” in the later incident, it is  “as though he is saying to himself, “They are just like their parents! Always quarreling!” In fact, they are a new generation, and by reverting to an action that was appropriate forty years earlier, and not now, Moses shows that he is not the person to bring them into the Land.” Moses seems unable to alter his entrenched way of relating to the people who themselves are actually different. This has implications on both a personal and a national level.

In a commentary from 2014,, Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz notes that in the earlier story, Moses does, indeed strike the rock, which implies that his error in this week’s parashah must be something other than “hitting” the rock. Rabbi Berkowitz cites Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch: “At God’s command, Moses took the staff again in his hand out of the Sanctuary where it had reposed for nearly forty years, and with this badge of his mission coming from God, he assembled the nation. But when, after nearly forty years, he saw himself directed to the people with the staff of God again in his hand, the staff which nearly forty years ago he had required for the people as testimony and credential of his mission (see Exodus 4:1–15), it hurt him grievously to think that in all these forty years, and with all that he had done in those forty years, he had still not won the confidence and trust of his people, and in the bitterness of these feelings he forgot his orders, and spoke, instead of quietly addressing the rock, words of deep reproach to the people (calling them ha-morim, “rebels”), and in passionate agitation struck the rock — whereupon water in abundance gushed forth and satisfied the thirst of the people and their animals.” (Commentary on Numbers, 368–9)
Rabbi Berkowitz says, “Hirsch’s explanation is insightful. He pins Moses’s offense on his growing impatience with the Israelites. Quite beautifully, Hirsch gives us a sensitive window into the soul of Moses — the angst with which he has wrestled as well as how his leadership has been pushed to its limits by Israelite behavior. For Hirsch, it is because Moses speaks to the people in a denigrating and harsh way (calling them “rebels” in Numbers 20:10) that, ultimately, he must pay the high price of not entering the Promised Land.”

In a commentary on Chukkat from 2013,, Dr Rachel Anisfeld wonders whether, before Moses struck the rock twice, perhaps he did try speaking, but it didn’t work. She notes that we read that Moses gathers the people together first, and before hitting the rock, he says, “Shim’u na hamorim – listen up, you rebels, are we going to get water from this rock?” Dr Anisfeld says “This is speech.” So she speculates that perhaps this was the speech that Moses believed might bring forth the water from the rock.
She continues, “But it didn’t. It didn’t because only gentle loving speech brings forth water. Moshe’s speech is angry and dripping with sarcasm. He attacks the people at their very essence. He doesn’t just say, “You acted badly and rebelliously,” but [he says] “You are rebels.” These are words of despair and faithlessness in the possibility of change. They do not inspire, but degrade. They make the people feel badly about themselves…”
Dr Anisfeld comments that such words cannot elicit water, rather they obstruct its flow. She says, “There is water of life and creativity and spirit in every thing and every person in this world. God created them all through speech and speech is capable of bringing out their essence, their beauty, their power. But not such speech, not angry, hopeless speech.”
She adds that what is needed is the language of blessing. “After God created the world with speech, He gave over the power of speech to humans, the power to praise God and recognize the beauty of His world through speech and the power to bless other human beings…
“Such speech does have the power to bring forth water. (Indeed, see a bit later in the parsha, where the people sing another water song, connected to a new water well they have dug – 21:17). In its joy and its love, such speech brings forth the hidden well-springs of water in each of us. Angry speech like Moshe’s does not accomplish its purpose and so necessarily leads to blows. The rock – and the people – will not bring forth water that way except by force. With a gentle loving speech that inspires, who knows what kind of water can come forth? ”

In his book Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis also understands Moses and Aaron’s seemingly disproportionate punishment in the light of Moses’ words and the anger that fueled them. He too recalls how Moses was in the same situation forty years before and God told him then to strike the rock. Here, in the same scenario, Rabbi Lewis surmises, in Moses’ anger at the people’s lack of faith, he does not pay attention to the instruction God gives him. He thinks he is in the same situation as previously and thus knows what to do. His anger obscures his ability to hear God’s current directive so he acts wrongly. Rabbi Lewis says, “A prophet’s vocation demands that he be always a perfect channel for God’s word. Anger makes Moses lose his capacity to listen. To miss God’s word even for an instant disqualifies him from his key role. Even one fleeting incident in which his hearing is impaired removes him from leadership. Later Elijah would also surrender the privilege of leadership due to his inability to hear God’s soft voice clearly (I Kings 19). Anger is underscored as a key obstacle to one’s relationship with God.”

Finally, on the phrase from above “And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod” it is told of Rabbi Yisrael of Rozhin, that he once saw one of his sons become angry with a certain Chasid, and when the son saw that Rabbi Yisrael heard but said nothing, he became even angrier. The Rozhiner quietened him and said, “With Moses our teacher, who struck the rock twice, it was considered a sin, for it is permitted for a person one time to lose control and become angry. But if that person repeats it, then it is a sign that he is a hot-tempered type, and anger is a reprehensible trait.” And he added “Our Rabbis said (Berachot 7), The Holy One Blessed be He gets angry every day, and how much is His anger? A moment, as it says (Psalms 30:6) “His anger is but for a moment…” From here we learn that a person is not permitted to be inside his anger for more than a moment, like God’s anger, and Moses, who struck twice, revealed that he remained within his anger more than an appropriate measure, and therefore he was punished.”


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