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June 26, 2012 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Chukat

This week’s Torah portion contains the infamous episode of Moses and the rock (Num. 20).  Basically, the people get thirsty, God tells Moses to talk to a rock so it can bring forth water, Moses says “Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?” and then hits the rock so it coughs up water.  God then says to Moses and Aaron: “Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.'”

So what bothers the medieval commentators is: it sounds like Moses did something wrong and got punished for it.  But what?

Showing commendable fair-mindedness, Nachmanides discusses everyone else’s theory before bringing up his own.

First comes Rashi, who says Moses got punished for hitting the rock instead of talking to it like God said he should. Nachmanides rebuts by pointing out that before Moses goes to the rock, God says to “Take the rod, and assemble the congregation”- and if he wasn’t supposed to hit anything with the rod, why did God ask Moses to take it along? Besides, Moses did talk to the rock (or at least in front of said rock) as well as hitting it, so its not quite true that Moses disobeyed a Divine command to talk to the rock.

Ibn Ezra said Moses indeed spoke to the rock as he was supposed to, but did it without full concentration because he was distracted by the irritability of the people. Nachmanides responds: how does this count as “believ[ing] not in Me”? Isn’t lack of concentration too trivial to be a big sin (even compared to the other alleged sins proposed as reasons for Moses’ punishment)?

Maimonides says Moses erred in being angry, and calling the people “rebels”.  Nachmanides responds: “He has added vanity upon vanities!” In particular, Nachmanides wonders whether the expression “ye rebels” means Moses was angry at all.  Even if he was, maybe he should have been, since the Hebrews repeatedly get punished for similar complaints.

Nachmanides explains that Moses and Aaron erred by using the term “we” rather than stating that God would get water for them, thus undermining the people’s belief in God.  To which I respond: hey, wait a minute!  After all the events of the Torah so far, could the people really believe that Moses could do anything without God?

Perhaps the best explanation is that there is no explanation: that the author or editor of the Torah (Divine or otherwise) didn’t think the story had a simple meaning, and put it in the Torah so we could spend a few thousand years arguing from it and getting meaning (s) out of it.

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2 Comments

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  1. Shira Salamone / Jun 29 2012 4:31 pm

    I’m going with Nachanides (Ramban?) on this one–this is, to the best of my so-called memory, the first time that Moshe/Moses tried to claim credit for himself and Aharon/Aaron for performing a miracle, instead of giving G-d the credit. (For the record, chapter 20, verse 10 says “*he* said to them,” so I think Moshe had the speaking role here, but Aharon got punished anyway.) This would account for HaShem’s complaint that they hadn’t sanctified him in the eyes of B’nei Yisrael/the Children of Israel.

  2. Shira Salamone / Jun 29 2012 4:47 pm

    Er, Nachmanides. Pardon the typo.

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