Parashat Hashavua Chukkat 2012

Drash on Parashat Chukkat
Rabbi Richard G Lampert
Rabbi Emeritus, North Shore Temple Emanuel,
Chatswood, Sydney, NSW

Poor old Moses, poor old Eddie Mabo.

Poor old Moses. He’s almost 120 years old. He has devoted more than 40 years of his life to his people, urging, cajoling, scolding, teaching them, to get them to join him in the Promised Land. He’s almost there – just a few kilometers short of his goal, his ultimate triumph – when the unthinkable happens.

His people – forever whingeing, complaining, thinking continually about all the ‘luxuries’ they had left behind in Egypt – are once again in moaning mode. “What!? No water again!! This is not good enough! Moses, it’s up to you and Aaron to bring us water, as you did on a previous occasion.”

What does Moses do?  Once again he appeals to God. And God, possibly grown a little frustrated and irritated by the situation, tells him. “Moses, take the staff in your hand, and with your brother Aaron, speak to the rock there in front of you, and sufficient water will flow – enough to satiate the needs of the Israelite people.”

A reasonable instruction – simple, precise, to the point. What does Moses do? He takes his staff, his trusty staff with which he split the Red Sea (or the Sea of Reeds) and with which he smote a rock in a similar scenario, approaches the rock. Accompanied by Aaron, the High Priest (his last surviving sibling, Miriam having just died) and being nearly 120 years old, and being hot and tired – probably close to exhaustion having led the fractious people for 40 years and having survived the slings and arrows with which they tormented him and the leadership of the Exodus – he loses his patience.

He shouts at the people: “Hear, now, you rebels! What, shall we fetch water for you from this rock!!?” And, forgetting God’s instructions to him, he uses the staff that God told him to bring with him to the rock, and he strikes the rock – not once, but twice! Out flows copious water and the people drink their fill.

But Oy Vey! God utters those fateful and hateful words: “Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the sight of the Israelite people, the two of you will not survive to bring this people into the Promised Land.”

We read that Aaron dies shortly thereafter and is buried on Mt Hor, (his grave is visible from Petra in Jordan). Moses, in the meantime, soldiers on, hoping against hope that God will have a change of heart. In fact, in his last speech to his people, we read in the Book of Deuteronomy that he had appealed to God for clemency in this regard. We read “At that time I appealed to God to permit me to enter the Promised Land and fulfill my dream. But God became annoyed with me and said ‘Enough! Speak to me no more of this matter!’”

So Moses, this dynamic charismatic leader, was given one last favour. God took him up to Mt Nebo (Nevo) and from there, showed him the land from afar, from the top of Mt Nevo. God said: “This is the land that I promised to your ancestors. I have let you see the Promised Land from afar, but you shall not go there.” And Moses, the servant of God, died there and no-one knows his burial place until this very day.

Well, we need to ask why. Why was this our leader treated in such a severe way. Surely the sanctity of God was not that defiled by Moses and Aaron! Was it because Moses struck the rock instead of speaking to it, as he had been instructed, presumably in private. Would the Israelite people have known that he was only supposed to speak to the rock and not strike it, as he had done on the previous occasion? Or was it that Moses addressed the people as “Rebels” thus showing scant understanding of their desperation for water, or was it that Moses said, “What! Shall we fetch water for you from this rock!?” Note that he said “Shall WE fetch water for you” – he did NOT say “Shall God bring forth water for you from this rock?”

Whatever the real reason was – and we shall never know – the bottom line is that Moses, that mighty leader of our people for 40 years never saw in any meaningful way the land that had been promised. We might - and probably do – think that it was unfair. If anyone deserved to make it across the Jordan, it was Moses.

Perhaps it is fitting that we don’t know where Moses is buried. Can you imagine the endless lines of pilgrims and tourists who would wish to visit the tomb?

So what is the connection between Moses and Eddie Mabo? Mabo was the Aboriginal man from Murray Island in the Torres Strait, who took on the crown and the Federal Government and sought to overturn the ruling that Australia had been described by the early settlers and their leaders as “Terra Nullius” – a land with no inhabitants and belonging to nobody.

Eddie Mabo won the case – the concept of Terra Nullius was overruled by the High Court and a great debate has been started in Australia about the effect of the High Court ruling. Regrettably, Eddie Mabo died before the High Court verdict was finalized. Eddie Mabo, like Moses, may have been given a glimpse of it from afar, but never saw his Promised Land.

But as the Law of Moses lives on and plays such a vital role in the lives of Jews and the world generally, so too the Mabo Law and the question of Aboriginal Land Rights will play a vital role in the coming history of Australia.

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