July 2016, Parshat Chukat, Examining Leadership

Dear friends,

This week’s Parsha, Parshat Chukat, contains a very well-known Torah story. The wandering Jews have been on the move camping out in the desert for just under forty years when they run out of water. Not a good situation to say the least, and the people lament that they would have preferred to be dead already than to imminently experience an excruciating death by dehydration.

God tells Moshe to take his stick and speak to the rock to bring forth water. Moshe takes his stick and hits the rock twice whereby the water gushes out enough to quench the thirst of the multitudes and their beasts. Good news for the people, bad news for Moshe and Aharon who are, as a result, denied access to the Promised Land. Instead they will both die in the desert; Aharon immediately after, Moshe in a year from then when he will be allowed to see the land but not enter it. The source of the famous line, ‘look but don’t touch’.

The traditional explanation to this story has been that Moshe was punished because he deviated from God’s instruction by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it and that because he was so great, and so even the most minute infraction was deserving a very stiff penalty.

The problem with this interpretation is manifold.

First and foremost – what a scary picture of God! That God can punish so severely for such a seemingly inconsequential infringement portrays God as a God of vengeance – hardly just and certainly not compassionate.

Remember, Moshe never wanted to go to Egypt to tell Pharaoh ‘let my people go’! He was a reluctant leader from the outset who was at this point at the end of a very long shift of 38 years leading a quarrelsome, whining, and stiff-necked people. The only request he makes of God for himself is the repeated plea to enter the land of Israel; the goal that will justify his selfless devotion to a nation at a time when he should have been relaxing in retirement. Moshe was now nearly 120, so from 80 years of age he has been overworked and underpaid for the hardest job in the world – leading the Jews! And all he asks for is one little favour and that is denied him for no good reason!

Second, it seems like Moshe was set up by God when he was told to take his stick and talk to the rock. This incident was actually the second time the Jews had run out of water. The first, some 38 years prior, God tells Moshe to take his stick and hit the rock. If God was so particular that this time the rock must be talked to, surely it was misleading to mention the stick at all. In fact, there is no obvious use for the stick this time around other than to confuse Moshe and have him fail. It reminds me of the way creationists rationalise the existence of dinosaur fossils by suggesting that God put them there to test our loyalty. I think God put the creationists to test our sanity as well as our morality.

Third, implicit in the interpretation above is that Moshe was somehow lacking in belief in the power of God to bring forth water from a rock by talking to it. How is it possible that Moshe, our greatest prophet, is lacking in his belief of God?

Fourth, why was Aharon punished together with Moshe? What wrong did he commit?

Finally, the reason the Torah gives for the denied access to the Holy Land is that Moshe failed to utilise the opportunity to sanctify God’s name in the eyes of the people by performing the miracle of talking to the rock. But why is hitting the rock not just as much of a miracle? Besides if God was looking to win the hearts and minds of the people by performing this miracle, punishing Moshe in this way is hardly going to instil a sense of warmth and appreciation. At best the people will have been instilled with a dread of God, hardly the sanctification God was after.

Rather than seeing this story as a classic case of sin and punishment that doesn’t add up at all and conveys the same uninspiring message of subservience to God, I believe this story is actually about leadership and relevance with profound insight into what’s lacking today in so many aspects of religion, communities and politics.

I believe Moshe was not actually punished for any wrongdoing. He was following the word of God the best he knew how with the same devotion and loyalty he exhibited at all times. That he hit the rock was because he actually interpreted that instruction be God in that way. And he had good reason to see it the way he did because of the precedence set in the first time he was commanded to do it.

His failing consisted of something altogether different and not one he could do anything about. He was of a different generation – pure and simple!

Moshe was the greatest, most patient, loving, selfless, devoted, and humble leader that the Jewish people have ever known. In fact he was chosen by God to lead the people precisely because he had shown extreme tenderness and compassion to one of his animals! God said, such a devoted shepherd is what I need for my flock.  A flock immensely traumatised by hundreds of years of slavery and extreme brutality. Such a nation requires the characteristics of Moshe who was even more patient with them than God was, having to frequently thwart God’s intent to destroy them.

Such a people needed the soothing presence of Moshe at all times, and needed Moshe to communicate with them without subtlety. They need water now, so he hits the rock as per God’s command first time around and mission accomplished very well.

The problem was that the audience at this time was altogether different. The older generation who grew up in the misery of Egypt had all died out by this point in time. What stood before Moshe now was a brand new generation who grew up chillin’ in the desert without a care in the world. The miracles of the daily manna, meat from the sky, sweet water travelling with them, a shielding cloud behind them for protection, a guiding fire illuminating their way, clothes that did not fall apart and Sukkot to dwell in, were just some of the luxuries they enjoyed in their privileged easy-going upbringing.

This generation did not have to struggle for their survival and as such had a lot more time for the development of their mental and emotional faculties. Inevitably then, when Moshe tries to communicate with them in the same way he had with their parents, his communication failed to impress or engage them at all. While authoritarianism was the chief language a subdued nation of freed slaves were able to understand, it was an absolute anathema to the younger generation who valued their individual intellectual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, abilities.

The failing was indeed that Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it. In fact he hit it twice for good measure! But it wasn’t a sin that he had committed, rather, his actions highlighted the fact that he was totally out of touch with the needs of the new generation. In the same measure that this most compassionate leader was a perfect fit to soothe the trauma of the last generation, in equal measure he was unfit to lead this next generation whose needs, aspirations, fears, and destiny, could not be more different. They needed a strong, proud, and fearless, individual to lead them in their conquest of the land and in establishing a new homeland for the Jewish People.

Now we see that Moshe’s denied entry into the land was simply a necessary course of action. Moshe could not have just receded to the background; he was the greatest leader who ever lived who spoke with God face to face. Any new leader with him around would be doomed to failure. As sad as it was, Moshe simply had to die in the desert.

Now we can understand why the previous occasion God indeed instructed to hit and this time changed it. The fact that Moshe did not pick up the subtlety is merely a demonstration that he could not possibly be the leader of this new generation. This is also why Aharon is ‘punished’ because he was, likewise, of Moshe’s peer-group who thought, acted, and communicated in the same vein.

This is what is meant when God says ‘you have failed to sanctify me in the eyes of the people’. Not because he had sinned in any way but because he was simply limited as all humans are to his predicament. Despite his shining qualities, they were matched perfectly to a different time and age.

Now this is a lesson of the highest order. Today, the struggles of Judaism and our broader community are not what they were in the previous generation. They had to deal with the Holocaust and the struggle to survive in the land of Israel constantly under existential attack. Today, one of our primary challenges is assimilation. Why? Because so many of our leaders are talking a language that is no longer relevant. And irrelevance leads to people giving up the second it becomes difficult or inconvenient. The ‘wrath of God’ understanding of the Torah, and our religion, simply no longer resonates with the younger generations. A Jewish identity forged out of the wagging finger – don’t marry a shiksa, don’t eat pork, don’t eat chametz on Pesach, and fast on Yom Kippur – is simply a thing of the past.

What we need today is compassionate and enlightened religious, communal and political leadership. Even Moshe, the most incredible and almost perfect leader we have ever known, had to surrender his leadership mantle when it was clear that his message no longer resonated. May his example be an inspiration to all.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shneur