from the heart of jerusalem

The puzzling encounter over rock and water


There is no more tragic figure in the entire Torah than Moshe Rabbeinu, our ultimate teacher. And there is no part of the story of his life in the Torah that is more confounding and mysterious than the story, in this week’s portion Chukat, of his hitting the rock and consequently being denied entry into the Promised Land.

What went wrong?

The people arrive at the desert of Tzin and have no water, so they complain to Moshe, because that is what you do when you are Jews in the desert with no water (Bamidbar 20:1-13). It’s exactly what they had done in the past — not long after the splitting of the Red Sea they arrive at Refidim and have no water and complain to Moshe (Shemot 17:1-7). Then as now, Moshe takes his staff and hits the rock and presto! — everybody’s happy.

Why does G-d this time punish Moshe and Aaron, preventing them from entering the land of Israel? 

A careful look at the verse will note that Hashem does not say they cannot enter the land of Israel, but rather that they will not lead the Jewish people home; at issue here is leadership. 

The commentaries offer many explanations for what mistake Moshe made here, precisely because it is not at all clear, especially given that Moshe is essentially following a previously tested and proved strategy. Some (Rashi) suggest he was meant to speak to the rock which would have been more powerful than hitting it, while others (the Ramban) suggest that the way in which Moshe seems to berate the people (v. 9) — “Shimu na ha morim” (listen now you rebels!) — was the problem. Moshe got angry. 

Nonetheless, it seems strange that Hashem wants Moshe to speak to the rock and yet enjoins him to take the staff, which was used previously to hit the rock. If Moshe was only meant to speak to the rock, why was he taking the staff?

And Aaron’s role here is unclear. The people complain to Moshe (v.3), yet Aaron joins Moshe (v. 6) in running to G-d (to the tent of meeting); then G-d tells Moshe to take Aaron with him (v.8), and Aaron goes along (v.10) but although he does not actually say or do anything (v. 12) he is equally punished.

• • •

Perhaps one detail seems most overlooked and that might shed an entirely different light on this story. Hashem tells Moshe to take with him (v. 9) the mateh mi’lifnei Hashem (the staff from Before G-d).

But which staff is this? In fact, at the end of last week’s portion (chronologically 38 years earlier) Hashem commands Moshe to place the staff of Aaron before the Ark in the tabernacle (see 17: 24-25), so maybe Hashem is telling Moshe to take Aaron’s staff with him. This might also explain why Aaron is along for the ride.

If this is true, we need to understand the purpose of Aaron’s staff being in the tabernacle in order to understand why it should be taken along.

Hashem (ibid v. 25) tells Moshe, after the rebellion of Korach and the miracle of the flowering of Aaron’s staff (demonstrating Aaron to be the true High Priest), that he should place the miraculous staff of Aaron before the Ark (called the Eidut in the Torah) “le’ot li’vnei Meri” (as a sign for rebellious ones), which is the exact term (v. 9), “shimu na ha morim” (listen now you rebels!), that Moshe uses in berating the people.

Was it the energy that this staff represented that was meant to be the solution to the conflict?

In last week’s portion of Korach, after Korach and his followers are swallowed by the earth and/or burned by fire, one would have expected the rebellion to be over. And yet, it is precisely then that Hashem tells Moshe to gather the staffs of the different tribal leaders, setting the stage for the miraculous blossoming of Aaron’s staff and assuring his place in Jewish leadership. Why wasn’t the earthquake and firestorm enough to end the conflict? 

• • •

Perhaps, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests, the Torah is trying to teach us that we don’t really solve conflicts with violence; true conflict resolution requires dialogue. Even after Korach is swallowed up by earthquake, the people are still complaining and rebellious (Bamidbar 17:6).

But considering that Korach’s rebellion took place during the second year in the desert, whereas this week’s story is a full 38 years later, the blossoming of the staff obviously worked; there seems to have been no conflict and no complaining for 38 years.

The staffs are left in the tent of meeting overnight, implying successful conflict resolution to be gradual. And the miracle is not the bombastic earth-shattering fire from heaven or powerful earthquake, but rather an almost natural blossoming of a flower, in Aaron’s staff, surrounded by all the other staffs, implying that real conflict resolution must be with the other and not at the expense of the other, and it must be made to seem the almost natural solution, rather than one that is imposed.

Perhaps in this week’s story, a new generation, preparing to enter and conquer land of Israel, needed to learn that conquest does not solve problems, though it may sometimes create opportunities. And wars, even when they must be fought, are not solutions but will always create new challenges. 

Moshe, in approaching a recurring problem and applying an old and tested method to its solution, may be demonstrating that new generations need new approaches. Maybe Moshe and Aaron did not necessarily do anything wrong per se, but it was nonetheless time for them to step aside. 

One wonders whether some of our current leaders are approaching recurring problems and applying old and tested methodologies, without realizing that a new generation needs a different approach and perhaps even new leadership. That is a discussion for another day (the Shabbat table, perhaps).