Hukkat (Chukat) - Regulation
Throughout the Torah, there are instructions to be learned, teachings to take to heart, and rules and ordinances to observe and obey. Most of these instructions and regulations are understandable, albeit sometimes only after some study and prayer. However, once in a while, we see something that just doesn't make sense to us. One example from an earlier Torah portion is kosher foods. YHVH doesn't tell us why unclean animals are unclean, he simply states that they are so. In the 3500 years since the regulation was given, there have been many interpretations put forth as to why these rules exist. Some may even be correct. The point is, we don't know for sure from a reading of the text.
This week's parasha includes two items that lead to such speculation and varied interpretation. The first comes at the very beginning of the portion regarding the red heifer. Why does sprinkling someone with water mixed with the ashes of a burnt heifer make them clean? Why does mixing the ashes in the water make the person doing the mixing unclean? Why does the heifer have to be burned outside the camp as an unclean item, but the blood sprinkled toward the tent of meeting is clean? As I said before, there have been many different interpretations presented over the millennia. There may be some truth to some, none or all of these interpretations. We simply don't know.
This leads me to the focus of this teaching. Today we are going to focus on the third aliyah, or third reading, of this week's Torah portion, which is Chapter 20:7-13. The story actually begins in verse 2 with the people of Israel running out of water. As is the norm among our people, when facing hardship, we blamed Moshe for bringing us out to the desert to die. This has been the default response for any difficulty faced by Israel for nearly 40 years. Low on food? Moshe brought us out here to die. Low on water? Moshe brought us here to die. Hangnail? Stubbed toe? Splinters and blisters from setting up and tearing down our tents 40+ times? Moshe brought us out here to die. Do you see a pattern forming? But there is another pattern that we see. Moshe's response to the complaints of the people. In verse 6 we see the same thing that is repeated throughout the Torah. Moshe (and Aharon) fell on their faces before YHVH.
And now begins the third aliyah, and the confusion. YHVH provides a way to give water to His people, same as He did forty years earlier. He told Moshe to bring forth water from a rock. This was something Moshe could understand. After all, he had seen it before. However, this time there was a difference. The first time, he was told to strike the rock with his staff and it would produce water. For this latest incident, YHVH changed things. He once again told Moshe to take his staff, but then He told Moshe to speak to the rock. He tells Moshe to "tell the rock to produce its water." (CJB) What happens next is the source of thousands of years’ worth of discussion and debate. When Moshe gathered the people, he deviated from the instructions he had just received. Was it out of frustration? Was it anger? Was it lightheadedness from standing under the desert sun? A cursory reading of the text makes it appear that he was at the very least frustrated with these people, as evidenced by his use of the phrase "you rebels." Hardly a complimentary description of the nation he has led all these years. It says in verse 10 in the Complete Jewish Bible: "Listen here, you rebels! Are we supposed to bring you water from this rock?" And then it happens. Moshe does not speak to the rock as he was commanded. He instead strikes the rock with his staff... twice. What happens next? We would expect that violating YHVH's plan would cause the rock to stay dry and the people to remain thirsty, correct? Wrong. It was YHVH's plan for His people to get water from that rock. Therefore, something as small as Moshe's temper tantrum (?) would ot be enough to circumvent His will. As we have seen many times before and after, when YHVH intends something to happen, it will happen. He just may have to circumvent our will to make it so.
After bringing water to the people, Moshe finds out the extent of his transgression. YHVH tells him that he will no longer be allowed to bring the people into the Promised Land. He would get them to the border but would not be allowed to cross over the river with them. What a harsh punishment. There could hardly be a stronger earthly punishment for such as Moshe. The culmination of his life's work has just been placed out of reach. Just like the rest of the first generation who wouldn't reach the Promised Land, neither would their first leader.
So what exactly was Moshe's sin? This has been the big debate. One school of thought says he sinned by striking the rock instead of speaking to it, in direct defiance of a command from YHVH. Another says that the problem was that he acted out of anger, and not out of faith in YHVH. Still another makes the argument that he stole glory from YHVH by stating that he and Aharon would bring water from the rock. Personally, I think it is more complicated than any one answer. I believe there was some of each of these and possible more involved in his transgression.
Clearly, striking the rock when he was told to speak to it was a direct violation of YHVH's command. Even if it wasn't one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, it was still a directive that came from YHVH Himself. Moshe didn't do what he was told, and therefore sinned. But that, I believe would not be enough to cost him the Promised Land. After all, YHVH had forgiven Israel and their ancestors of much worse in the past. Could his anger and frustration have kept him from the land? Again, others had shown anger and been forgiven. And if anyone had reason to be frustrated, it had to be Moshe after leading this motley crew for 40 years. I think he could have been forgiven for this as well. But, he compounded all his errors by taking credit for YHVH's work. YHVH does not share glory. This is leading us to the strongest transgression of all. Moshe showed a lack of faith in YHVH. This caused YHVH Himself to call Moshe out for not trusting Him. Moshe allowed his frustration and anger to turn his focus from YHVH and onto his own troubles. This lack of focus caused him to strike the rock, falling back on his own prior understanding, instead of speaking to it as he was told.
Rabbi Lord Sacks presents an interesting interpretation of the event. He says that the first generation that had been slaves were used to lessons coming by being struck with a staff. That was the way slaves were taught. It was a technique they could understand. The second generation, however, were a free people. They needed to be taught by a leader speaking. This fits with the new instruction that Moshe was given. By striking the rock, he was treating the new generation as a group of Egyptian slaves, rather than the free Israelites. Therefore Israel needed a new leader that would be able to lead a free people as they entered the land.
I think there is probably some truth to each of the possibilities, but as with so many things about YHVH and his grand design, we may have to wait until Yeshua can explain it to us.