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Bemidbar - Chukat

It’s not always easy to find the right words. Sometimes it’s easier not to pick up the phone, or avoid a conversation. If you can relate to these statements, you’re in good company.


Our parasha contains the famous story of Moshe hitting the rock, when God had required him to speak to it. You can have a read at this link. Moshe’s punishment, unbearably harsh as it might sound, was banning his entry to the Land of Israel - his entire life’s mission unfulfilled.


The key question on this story is: what did Moshe do that was so wrong to deserve a punishment like this? After all, 40 years earlier in the book of Shemot, Moshe was commanded to hit a rock so that water would come out. Why now is his slight deviation from the instruction such a steep downfall?


I heard a beautiful explanation in a memorable Limmud Conference session several years ago. It was a discussion between Judy Klitsner and Rabbi Sam Lebens, chaired by Maureen Kendler z”l. Cleverly titled “Striking a Rock Instead of a Conversation”, the scholars argued that Moshe had always lived between two poles - the pole of striking and the pole of speaking.


Naturally drawn to striking, Moshe struck an Egyptian dead in his early life. He returns to Egypt with his staff to smite the empire with 10 plagues (literally 10 strikes). His staff, which another exemplary Torah scholar Gila Fine describes as an “elongated hand” also splits the sea.


In contrast, at the burning bush Moshe says לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי “I am not a man of words”. We have a midrash that Moshe had a speech impediment. He speaks but few of his own words throughout the Torah, mainly serving as God’s mouthpiece. But he manages to maintain the tension between these two poles - until now.


Why at this moment should Moshe default so drastically to his striking mode? If we look at the wider narrative, Moshe has recently lost his two closest nurturers. In this very chapter, his sister Miriam dies. Miriam, who had been there at the crucial moments in Moshe’s life, Miriam who knew exactly the right words to keep Moshe alive as a baby and have him nursed in Pharaoh's palace by his birth mother. Miriam who at the Song of the Sea, sung succinctly in 1 line what had taken Moshe much longer to compose.


And very recently in our narrative, Yitro, Moshe’s father in law and mentor, had left the Israelite camp to return to his people. Yitro who had encouraged Moshe to share his burden, not to work alone, to be collaborative, conversive.


Moshe is suddenly alone, grieving his sister and mentor, and without the two influences in his life which stabilised him. At the first hint of pressure, he reverts to striking. The words which come out are addressed not at the rock but at the people in an angry and insulting challenge: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”


One closing - perhaps consoling - idea is that being barred from entering the Land of Israel is in fact not a punishment, but rather a natural consequence. In the words of Judy Klitsner and R.Lebens, at this point God realises that Moshe isn’t the right leader to take the people onwards. This new desert generation, one not born into slavery, needed a leader who could teach the mode of speaking rather than striking. God may phrase it as a punishment, but in fact God was looking out for the needs of the people who would march forwards, who would need a leader accomplished in the art of not just striking, but also speaking.


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