Reading Parashat Chukkat, we engage ourselves quite often in the discussion of Moses’ big mistake which resulted in God’s severe punishment. Why is he prohibited to enter the promised land, why can’t he enjoy the fruits of his hard work? It must have been something dramatic. So we engage ourselves in looking for the negative in Moses, instead of realising that it is in the context of his mistake that truly demonstrates his real greatness and the challenge of being a leader. We never hear the Israelites thanking Moses for his hard work leading them from slavery to freedom, and bringing God’s presence into the camp. But when something goes wrong they love to complain, looking for any “hair in the soup”.
Our Torah portion reports the death of Moses’ sister, Miriam. There is no explanation and no period of mourning for her brothers or the community. Instead the people complain. They come to Moses to moan about the lack of water. No-one offers Moses any sympathy, or condolences for his loss; he is expected to get on with his job and respond to another Israelite complaint. Moses pointedly does not utter a single word. He simply goes to fall before God at the Tabernacle. And God responds, as always, with a solution for Moses: ‘Take the rod … and speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall give forth water.’
It is understandable that Moses would be upset. Upset about his sister’s death, upset that he has been unable to mourn, and upset by another Israelite challenge. He voices his frustration calling the people ‘rebels’ and then he gives expression to his annoyance, striking the rock twice, rather than talking to it, as instructed. He could be forgiven for this little outburst, for this show of frustration. He resisted the temptation to lash out at the people. He continued to fulfil his leadership role. He took his frustration out on an inanimate object, striking the rock to give expression to his hurt, anger and exasperation. God had told him to take the rod with him, placing temptation in his path. And significantly water flowed from the rock. But the punishment is immediate; as God tells Moses: ‘you shall not bring this people into the land’.
The punishment appears excessive. Moses has been pushed and prodded by this people ever since Egypt. And although he was probably emotionally unstable after his sister’s death, there is no sympathy. Leaders are held to a higher, almost unattainable, standard, and they suffer when they fall short.
Moses would be forgiven for giving up and resigning on the spot; leaving God and the people alone together. Instead, it is at this moment that Moses marks himself apart as a truly outstanding leader. He does not appeal to God or the people. Instead he sends messengers to the king of Edom so that the Israelite journey can continue. It is a journey that Moses will not complete, but he puts his personal feelings aside and focuses solely on fulfilling his leadership role. Although he will not reach the Promised Land, Moses puts the needs of the community above his own and demonstrates the truth of the line: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. In this way, he became a wonderful role model for leaders of the Jewish people in all generations.
Rabbi Adrian M Schell
(Source Rabbi Burkeman)
Winter break for our adult learning programs
The Torah Breakfast with Rabbi Schell meets for the last time before the break this Shabbat 02 July and resumes 06 August at the usual time (8h45).
The Thursday evening study with Rabbi Schell starts again with a new topic – Jewish law from the Bible to today – on 11 August at 18h00. Have a wonderful Winter and please stay warm.
|Torah Reading for Shabbat Chukkat
Numbers 19:1-22:1 (P p.1024/H p.652)
Haftarah Judges 11:1-33 (P p.1043)/H p.664)
Parashat Chukkat describes the ritual slaughter and sacrifice of the “Parah Adumah, the red cow”, and the ritual cleansing for those who touch a dead body, Miriam and Aaron’s deaths, and God informs Moses that as a consequence of not following His instructions, he will be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
Podcast of Rabbi Schell’s weekly Sermons Tuesdays on Radio Today (10h30) or: http://goo.gl/LsHQrY.