In this week’s Torah portion, one of the most confusing and tragic events befalls our prophet Moses. He has been leading the Jewish people in the desert for an exhausting 40 years. And his sister, Miriam, dies. Along with that (or rather because of that), the well that has been following Bnei Yisroel in the desert dries up. Now Moses, faced with a thirsty and crying people, is told by God to find a particular rock and to speak to it and then water will flow. But when Moses gets to the rock, he doesn’t speak to it. He hits it. And water does flow. But because of this disobedience God sentences him to die in the desert, never to enter the Land of Israel.
It is a tragic punishment for the man who was closest to God. Who went to bat for the Jewish people over and over. Who brought down the Torah. What was his mistake? Disobedience? Anger? A lack of emmunah? And so what if he did sin? His sister had just died and he had grown old and tired. Given his circumstance and all that he has done, why couldn’t God just give Moses a break?
A Bigger Problem.
Rabbi David Wolpe gave an incredible insight into the profundity of what was really going on in this moment. I’m going to try to regurgitate it here. But you should really listen to the real thing. Rabbi Wolpe says that this moment for Moses, at the rock, is a culmination of something Moses has been wrestling with his entire life. For you see, Moses had a problem with speech.
When we first see Moses in the Torah, the Egyptian princess Bossia finds him crying. “[Bossia] opened it and saw the child and behold he was crying.” (Shemos 2:6) It says she saw Moses was crying. If a child is crying, do you see them first or hear them first? It should say she heard him crying, especially if he’s in a basket. But no. She opened it and then saw him crying. From the beginning, the Torah is telling us there’s something wrong with Moses’ ability to express himself
From there the Torah says nothing about him again until he is an adult. Granted there are Midrashim (stories that flesh out the Torah) about things Moses did as a child. But the Torah itself jumps to the scene where Moses sees the slave master whipping an Israelite. (Shemos 2:11) And what does Moses do? He acts, killing the slave master. Remember, Moses is a Prince of Egypt. Surely, Moses could have said something and the slave master would have stopped. But he didn’t. Then the next day he sees two Israelits fighting, but this time he does talk to them. And it goes so badly that Moses flees from Egypt. We now clearly see a pattern with Moses and his communication skills.
I’m the worst one you could possibly choose.
At the burning bush God gives Moses the charge to talk to Pharaoh and to the Jewish people and lead them out of slavery. Moses declines saying, Lo eish deverim anochi. I am not a man of words. … ch’vad peh, [I am of] heavy/clumsy mouth. (Shemos 4:10) and Moses argues with God for 7 days insisting no one is going to listen to him. Finally, God assures Moses that his brother Aaron will be the his spokesperson.
Moses goes to Egypt, does all the Pesach stuff, yada yada, let’s jump to Mount Sinai where God speaks to the Jewish people, giving them the 10 Commandments. As you know from my Shavous post, the Ten Commandments aren’t really just commandments. In Hebrew they are the Aseres Ha’Devros, the 1o Statements. (Just a side note about God. One of the primary ways God interacts with this world is through his speech. God said, “Let there be light.” etc…)
Moses goes up for 40 days and learns those words (those devarim). Then he comes down holding those very words in his hands. When he sees the idol worshiping of the Gold Calf, what does he do? Does he ask how this could have happened? Does he look for an explanation? No, once again he acts, smashing the words of God. Then he goes back up the mountain, relearns those words, but this time has to write them himself. There is a difference between how Moses interacts with the world and how God does. But God is clearly trying to teach him.
A Rock and A Hard Place
This leads us to the tragedy of the rock. You would think by this time Moses has finally learned the lesson. Now, we all have character flaws that we’ve struggled with our whole lives. And for some of those flaws you’ve probably made tremendous progress conquering them. But when things get rocky, the stress starts to get a little too much, you slip. And it’s not the end of the world, but there’s no escaping the haunting feeling that you’ve let yourself down. That’s because our character is proven when we pass a test that’s truly difficult to pass. The hard times are when it matters most. It’s when you just had a crazy exhausting or sleepless night, but you still get up for your jog before work. That’s when you know your character matches your aspirations.
The moment was perfectly designed for Moses. At a time when he is emotionally distraught, desperately thirsty, and with a nation of Jews coming down on him, he is told specifically to speak to the rock. But instead, he hits it. Twice. It is a failure that shows Moses that he hasn’t completed his tikkun. The thing you need to fix, the reason you were put on this earth.
The Final Book.
So with his punishment, the prohibition from the Promise Land, what does Moses do? The final book of the Torah is a prolonged speech by Moses to the nation of Israel. It is a diatribe of what the nation has done wrong and it is a review of the Torah so far. In Latin, this book is called Deuteronomy. But in Hebrew it is Devarim. Words. Moses learns a hard lesson in parshas Chukkas. But it is because of that lesson that he finally learns how to use speech and interact with the world the way God does. And it is through these very words that we, Jewish people, interact with God.