Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 8, 2006

Like water from a stone

Although they are by no means universally understood to be a fundamental statement of the Jewish ethos, the closest that Judaism has to a canon of faith is Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith. The seventh of the thirteen principles is that Moses is Hashem’s primary prophet, and no prophet since or before approached his intimacy with the divine. Moses is also held to be Hashem’s stenographer, setting down the exact word of God, according to Orthodox Judaism. Conservative Judaism argues instead that the Torah is divinely inspired, rather than literally the word of God, but that’s the debate for another day.

Despite his centrality for Jewish theology, Moses was not buried in the Land of Israel and could only view the “permissible land” (more on this subject from Emmanuel Levinas to come) from the wilderness of Moab (now Jordan) in his final days. In this week’s parsha (or Torah reading) of Chukat, we encounter the episode that prompted Hashem’s decision to deny Moses and Aaron entry and a final resting place in Israel. After Moses’ sister Miriam dies, there was a sudden shortage of water in the encampment. This is of course provided an opportunity for malcontents to mount another attack on Moses’ leadership. Hashem commands Moses to assemble the children of Israel, and speak to a rock (interpreted as utter the divine name) to draw out water from it. Once Moses has the congregation assembled he pronounces:” Listen now, rebels, shall we draw forth water for you from the rock?” and the hits it twice.

Of course, this episode resonated with later Christian writers who saw the rock as a metaphor for Jesus. Also, the incident is viewed as a miracle and manifestation of Hashem’s mercy (related to the Christian concept of grace). But why does this incident carry such a grave penalty, and why does the Torah flag Moses’ shortcoming so explicitly. After all, when Moses was still a royal prince in Egypt, he was overcome by anger and killed an Egyptian slavemaster that was beating an Israelite.

The obvious mistake is that Moses hit the rock rather than talking to it, and commentators offer various opinions on what the action reflected about Moses’ state of mind: he was angry, he lacked faith or he was frustrated with his divinely ordained mission. The medieval commentator Rashi of Troyes remarks that Moses hit the rock because he had earlier spoken to the wrong one with no results. He also points out that the Torah so explicitly spells out the punishment for Moses and Aaron (who is essentially his accomplice) in order to make clear that they were not party to the sin of the generation of the wilderness.

Nachmanides, one of the central figures in the development of medieval Kabbalah, notes too that Moses was commanded to take his staff, but was punished because he said “WE shall draw water” rather than attribute the miracle to divine intervention.

The Chassidic master Master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Barditchev sees Maimonides’ explanation (that he rebuked the people angrily) and Rashi’s explanation (that he struck the rock instead of speaking to it) as two sides of the same coin. If a leader’s influence on the community is achieved through harsh words of rebuke, than his relationship with the environment is likewise: he will have to forcefully impose his will on it to get it to serve his people’s needs and their mission in life. If, however, he influences his community by lovingly uplifting them to a higher place so that they, on their own, will desire to improve themselves, the world will likewise willingly yield its resources to the furtherance of his goals.
My tendency is to view this episode in more human terms. Moses reached the pinnacle of human interaction with the divine but was still capable of human lapses. Equally, despite his centrality in the establishment of the religion, he was still accountable for his actions and was held to even higher set of standards. The message here – in my opinion – is that we should realize that we have limitations, but don’t delude ourselves that those limitations serve as excuses for indolence or selfishness.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks picks up on a more obscure reference in the parsha to highlight the value that Judaism places on argument in pursuit of the truth and by extension conflict resolution. The ground rules for conflict resolution also relate to last week’s Parsha of Korach.



  1. Have tried to subscribe to the website but don’t get the weekly parshot sent to me. Please can this be done.
    Tanya Bauman South Africa

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