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Why God Sentenced Moses & Aaron to Death: Chukkat

Chukkat: Numbers 19:1-22:1


YHVH spoke to Moses, saying: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and your brother Aaron. Speak to the rock before their eyes, that it give water…” Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation facing the rock. He said to them: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water came forth and the community drank… YHVH said to Moses and Aaron: “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Children of Israel, you will not bring the congregation into the land I have given them.”[Num. 20: 7-12]

What was Moses and Aaron’s sin that warranted such punishment? Many rabbis, including Rashi, point to the obvious: God told the two brothers to talk to the rock and, instead, they hit it, thus going against God’s will and desecrating God’s name in the eyes of the Israelites. Nachmanides disagrees with Rashi. For almost 40 years since Moses parted the Sea of Reeds with it, Nachmanides explains, God hadn’t asked Moses to grab the staff. Moses had to have understood God’s command to take the staff as a request to use it. Why else? The last time Moses used it to part the waters, this time he would use it to bring forth the waters. Nachmanides, agreeing with Maimonides, opposes Rashi to argue that Moses and Aaron’s sin was to collapse into anger against the Israelites and lash out at them saying: “Listen you rebels!” And then, sneeringly: “Shall we bring you water out of this rock?

Was their anger justified? Either way, does it matter? After wandering 38 years and witnessing the passing of the Hebrew slave generation, Moses and Aaron have reasons to be angry watching this new entitled skeptical generation complaining. Yet, as leaders of this new generation, as—in this case—the instruments of God’s Presence among the people, Moses’ and Aaron’s harsh words were utterly destructive. Such a burst of anger had the potential to shake their newly acquired faith to the core, to erode their love of, and reverence for God, to cause the Israelites to question their own worthiness, their own abilities in completing God’s plan for them, and that could tear at the very fabric of the still fragile Israelite society, breeding distrust not only toward their leadership but each other, and thus endangering the very cohesion of the tribes. There was much more to lose than to gain in Moses’ harsh words. Even if the two brothers may have been justified in their anger, their position as leaders needed to have weighed more heavily in their decision to act. But is it ever “justified” for a leader to express anger as an outburst—disparaging the very people they are supposed to guide? How about parents? No—a leader/parent’s job is to have enough wisdom, practice, and patience to channel their anger into a constructive form—an opportunity for growth.

That is Nachmanides’ interpretation: true leadership, and especially spiritual leadership, needs to aim at raising people up, to approach them with compassion and love, showing unconditional support to lift up the Divine spark already present within them. With their harsh words, Moses and Aaron placed themselves above the people by tearing them down, just like Korach had accused them of doing in the previous Torah portion. Leaders in general, and spiritual leaders (or parents) in particular, need to be especially aware of their actions’ impact on those who come to them with heightened vulnerability. As they work to wake others’ minds, they have the sacred responsibility to mind their wake.