D’var Torah for June 30, 2017
Of all of the Torah portions, perhaps the one that causes us the greatest consternation is that of Parashat Chukat. When the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Zin, “and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there” (Num. 20:1).
According to the midrash, a well was created that followed the Israelites during their journeys in the wilderness because of the merits of Miriam. Therefore, as long as Miriam was alive, this well of living waters sustained the Israelites. (Rashi on Num. 20:2; BT Ta’anit 9a). However, after she died, the well disappeared.
Without the well, the people joined together in complaining to Moses and Aaron because of their thirst. Moses took their complaints to God, who told him to speak to a rock to “yield its water” (Num. 20:8). Rather than speak to the rock, all of Moses’ pent-up frustrations came forth. “’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.”
Following this incident, at the Waters of Meribah, God informed Moses that he would not be allowed to lead the people into Canaan because he “did not trust God enough to affirm His sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people” (Num. 10:12).
When reading this passage, whether young or more experienced, inevitably the issue is raised: After all that Moses has done for the Israelites, he doesn’t even get to set foot in the land of Canaan. It’s not fair!
The rabbis even struggle with this punishment writing, “The subtlety of his error is beyond our understanding” (The Midrash Says: The Book of Bemidbar). However, there is another view on this. As one commentator noted, “the greater and the closer to Hashem a person is, the less he is spared from blame (Moshe Alshich, 1508-1593).
One way to interpret this is that if God holds the righteous accountable, how much the more so, everyone should be afraid of God’s judgment. However, this is not a very comforting interpretation. Instead, another way to read it is in the words of another famous Jew, Stan Lee, in his 1962 introduction of Spiderman in Amazing Fantasy #15, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
Moses had great power, which meant his words and his deeds had a much more significant impact than those of other Israelites. This notion has followed Jews ever since. Part of our covenantal relationship with God is the idea that we should somehow be beyond reproach in our words and our deeds. This theology is also part of why some are so very critical of the State of Israel because Israel should somehow be better than every other nation on earth. I am not a fan of this line of thinking when it comes from external sources. There is certainly merit to holding ourselves accountable and to a higher standard.
There are many times where we stumble and fail to live up to our best selves. But every Shabbat presents us with another opportunity to start anew. May we find the rest and renewal of Shabbat to be a time where we can rebalance our lives and strive to live up to the best in ourselves.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff