Drash on Parashat Chukat
Rabbi Misha Clebaner
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
In this week’s Torah portion of Chukat, two of the three Israelite leaders pass away. Miriam dies, as does Aaron. Sandwiched in between these two tragic events, is another tragic event. Moses lashes out against his people and negates the commands of Adonai as he strikes a rock (instead of speaking to it) to bring forth water to quiet the thirsty and clamouring masses.
It is said (Numbers 20:12) that Moses will not be allowed to enter into the Land of Israel because of the scene at the rock of Meribah. Stricken with grief after the passing of his sister, Moses failed to heed the word of God.
Moses was not only overcome with an intense sadness because of his love for his sister, but he had also lost a partner in leadership. Not only had he lost his fellow guide towards redemption, but he knew that their people had lost their source of inspiration for dancing and singing. Additionally, it was due to the merit of Miriam that the Israelites continued to find wellsprings of water wherever they went.
Moses, Aaron, and Miriam each brought a unique gift and blessing to their people. When Miriam passed away, Moses knew the hardship that lay ahead of them. Not only would it be harder to come by singing and dancing, but Moses foresaw the trouble they would have in finding water as well. For this reason, he hits the rock with the hope that the water would be forced to come out, with or without Miriam’s presence.
The Talmud teaches (Ta’anit 9a) that “three great leaders arose for the people of Israel —Moses, Aaron and Miriam— through whom the Israelites received three great gifts: the wellspring, the clouds of glory, and the manna. The well was in the merit of Miriam, the clouds in the merit of Aaron, and the manna in the merit of Moses. When Miriam died, the wellspring had closed up. But, the wellspring then came back in the merit of the other two. When Aaron died, the clouds of glory that protected the Israelites were removed. The wellspring and the clouds then came back in the merit of Moses alone.”
God ensured that the waters (and later on, the protective clouds above) would continue to be present for the Israelites even after the passing of Miriam, and perhaps that one day they would sing and dance again too. Yet, in the immediate aftermath of losing Miriam, Moses was not able to see the continued blessings that flowed all around him. Due to his parched heart, he only saw a parched land.
In the aftermath of losing his sons Nadav and Avihu, in his grief Aaron was silent. Although the world continues to spin, flowers continue to bloom, and water still flows, our grief forces us to stand still and to feel the sorrow of loss before we smell the flowers and drink from the spring.
Moses tried to muster on and burst through his grief rather than dealing with it. As a result, he lashes out against his people and disobeys the word of command leading to his ban from entering Israel.
It is said that Moses was the most humble of any prophet that walked the Earth. Indeed, Moses was human just like the rest of us and like the people he led. We see no clearer and no more poignant example of his fragile and humbled humanity than at the scene of hitting the rock at Meribah after the loss of his sister.
May we remember the fragility of all those around us, no matter how towering or invincible they appear to be.