Ohh parhas Chukas and the famous incident with Moses hitting the rock. I wrote about it last year within the context of Moses’s whole life. But I decided to come back to the event and discuss it from a more immediate perspective.
After last week’s parshas Korach, the Torah jumps ahead 38 years with virtually the entire generation that left Egypt having died out. Miriam then dies and because of this, the well that accompanied Bnei Yisrael all these years stops giving water. The Jews complain of thirst so God instructs Moses to find a rock, speak to said rock, and water will flow forth. But instead of speaking to the rock, Moses hits it. Water still springs forth, but it because Moses didn’t follow Hashem’s instructions, Moses is condemned to die in the desert, forbidden to enter the land of Israel.
It is a harsh punishment for the man who Judaism regards as its greatest prophet. (Most other religions usually have their prophet ascend to heaven in divine grace.) What was so bad about hitting a rock opposed to speaking to a rock? And so he made a mistake. Why was this mistake unforgivable?
The Unforgivable Character Trait
Rambam says that Moses had become angered with the Jews’ complaining and references the way he addressed them. “Listen now, O rebels, is it so that from this rock we shall bring for water?” (Bamidbar 20:10) If is immediately after that Moses hits the rock not once, but twice.
Everyone gets angry every once in a while, but according to Rambam we shouldn’t. That anger (along with arrogance) we should stride to rid ourselves of completely. Why is anger regarded so severely? The rabbis say anger is a from of avodah zara (idol worship). Because if we have clarity that God is involved and runs the world, then the difficult things that anger us are for our good and for us to overcome. Granted that’s a lofty level. But imagine if you had the wherewithal to be free of someone being able to affect you. When you live with a deep relationship with God, you come to view your world through a prism of “What is God trying to tell me?” It creates a behavior of contemplation instead of reaction.
The other issue is that when you become angry you lose control and make mistakes. Giving into anger is delicious. In all honesty, if I’m at a restaurant and there’s a problem with the order, sometimes I would rather the waitstaff screw up more just so I have more ammunition rather than actually appease me. Anger has that festering quality.
Also when you’re angry, you lose control and make mistakes. When we are overcome by anger, we’re more concerned about taking out that anger than understanding what actually happened. It’s why an impartial justice system based on innocent until proven guilty is so essential. And we see this in the parsha. The Torah says Moses struck the rock twice. Why twice? Because the first time the water didn’t flow. Had Moses struck the rock in service of Hashem, instead of in anger, he would have seen there was a problem. But he missed it and made the mistake again.
From Generation to Generation
This event is widely known as “Moses striking the Rock,” as if it were to condemn the act of physical action over words in every instance. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that earlier in the Torah (back in Shemos), the Jews find themselves in almost an identical situation. They’ve been wandering through the desert and run out of water. God tells Moses to find a rock, but this time He tells him to hit the rock.
Behold, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink. Moses did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel. (Shemos 17:6)
He strikes the rock, water pours forth, then the rock starts rolling with them dispensing whenever they need it. In fact, the rabbis say Miriam’s well, the well that went away after she died (at the beginning of this week’s parsha), is this very rock. It’ll roll along with Bnei Yisrael throughout the 40 years in the desert. So if Moses hitting the rock, back in parshas Beshalach, is a good thing to do, why is Moses hitting the rock such a bad thing in Chukas?
The important thing to realize is that though these two instances are almost identical, the people in them aren’t. We’re talking about two different generations. The first instance was with the generation that were slaves in Egypt. They lived through the plagues, walked through the split sea, and soon after personally witnessed God speak. With their first hand experience, if they are being petty or disobedient, maybe they needed a bit of a potch to get them back on course.
The generation of Chukas grew up under very different conditions. Their food was waiting for them outside their tent every day, their were carried and shielded from the heat by the clouds of Aaron. And until now, had never known what it was like to be thirsty. So living in the sheltered environment, they now are approaching the land of Israel where all that care and pampering is going to go away. Their complaining came from a very different place than the generation before them. Dealing with those concerns required a different approach. A word of speech, not the strike of a staff. Moses’ failure to deliver that was an indication that he was not the right leader for this generation.
It’s Fashionable to Bash Millennials
Yes, generally speaking, some millenials have an air of entitlement and maybe think they can achieve Zuckerberg levels of greatness without experience necessary to achieve it. But they also are finding solutions to problems we never thought possible. (Years ago, how many times did you wish you could know which traffic route would be faster? Well now Waze exists.) Regardless of flaws and challenges, they are the next generation, and I believe there is greatness in every generation. It is the job of generation before it to recognize their strengths and weaknesses of the generation following to properly give over wisdom and teachings so they can receive it. The teachings of yesterday don’t always work for today’s children. That’s why we have an Oral Torah. (FYI Micah Tyler, you’re like 3 months older than me and we’re both millennials.) If the teacher becomes so out of touch that they lose the ability to do that, then maybe it’s time for that leader to step down.
Whether it was about managing anger or just not being the appropriate leader for the next generation, it was time for Moses to pass the torch. That doesn’t mean that Moses was bad or wrong. It just means that times change and trying to hold on to older methods without being in touch of coming needs will only lead to growing frustration. So it is important to try to recognize greatness beneath the surface rather than condemn obvious flaws. Finally, always try to be an example those who look up to you, no matter how tempting it is to give in to your frustrations.