Parashah of the week: Chukkat

“You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” Numbers 20:12


Moses striking the rock, by Tinteretto (Wikimedia Commons)

Parashat Chukkat is best known for God’s judgment that Moses would not lead the people into Israel because he hit a rock.

Aaron too is implicated in this judgment, although he neither did nor said anything. It seems an overly severe punishment for a seemingly minor infraction. Moses and Aaron got cancelled for hitting a rock!?

We must ask ourselves: why did Moses hit the rock in the first place, seeing that God told him explicitly to speak to it?

Perhaps Moses confused the instruction with an incident at Chorev, many years earlier when, under similar circumstances he had been instructed to strike - not speak - to a rock to extract water (Exodus 17:6). This might imply that he had not paid attention to his instructions and neither had Aaron.

The context of our parashah suggests that Moses and Aaron had good reason to be distracted, as the Israelites came to them demanding water immediately after Miriam had died (Number 20:1). For Moses, this was especially hard as she had watched over him as an infant, when their mother had placed him in a basket in the river.

Moses and Aaron were, understandably, not in the right frame of mind to deal with the people’s demands. Moses responded to them angrily, scolding the people while smiting the rock in frustration, as if, given half the chance, he might have lashed out at the people instead. Who hasn’t slammed a door, banged a table, hit the wall in frustration? Moses hit a rock, and Aaron was unable to stop him hitting it a second time.

Neither of them appears quite in control of the situation, or their emotions, and that is precisely the problem. “When a prophet loses his temper, the gift of prophecy abandons him,” (Talmud Pesachim 66b).

Nothing is harder than to acknowledge that it is time to hand over when we are no longer up to the task. Moses and Aaron showed that they were no longer able to deal with the strains of leading the Israelites into the land of Israel.

God’s judgment was not a punishment, but a reminder that even for great leaders like Moses and Aaron there is a time to let go. It is a hard lesson, but a lesson we must all learn nevertheless.

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