Drash on Parashat Chukat 2018
Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky
Beit Shalom Synagogue
Adelaide, South Australia
The central part of the book of Numbers sees Moses dealing with one challenge after another. First, the people complain that they are growing tired of manna and want to eat meat. Then, the spies return from scouting out the land of Canaan and ten of the twelve report that while it is a beautiful place, the inhabitants are so formidable that it will be nearly impossible to conquer. To punish their lack of faith, God condemns that entire generation to die in the desert rather than enter the land that has been promised to them. And then we have last week's dramatic parshah, in which Korach, Datan and Aviram launch a revolt against Moses' leadership. The rebels have the chutzpah to accuse Moses of having taken them away from a land flowing with milk and honey--Egypt!
The second part of this week's Torah portion leaps 38 years in to the future, to a point where that generation that left Egypt have all died and there is the tantalising possibility that the Moses will finally cross over into the land of Canaan. And then the community runs out of water. The people assail Moses and Aaron and yell, "Why have you brought the Eternal's congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain or figs or vines or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink!"
God tells Moses to speak to a rock so that the rock will bring forth water, but instead he picks up his staff, bellows, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?!" Moses strikes the rock, water flows from it, and God informs him that he has lost his chance to enter the promised land.
Are Moses' actions rash, ill-considered, and prompted by rage? Absolutely. Can I sympathise with him in this situation? Without a doubt. I can only begin to imagine how discouraging it is for him to hear this next generation, a group of people who have almost no memories of Egypt or in some cases were born long after the Israelites left, using language that is nearly identical to the words of their parents and grandparents. Even Moses must have a breaking point, and this moment appears to be his.
It is terribly sad and more than a bit frustrating that God does not permit Moses this very human moment. But this divine response should not diminish our own human connection with him. It is a touching reminder that all of the people who inhabit the Torah are deeply human. Moses may be remembered as the greatest of all prophets, but he is also a human being with his own flaws. And so we too have within ourselves that same potential for greatness.