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Chukat(Numbers 19:1-22:1)

Deja Vu - All Over Again?

It seems like déjà vu: a lack of resources leads to complaints, which brings about Divine intercession - and so it goes, again and again. But this time is different. This time, instead of the people suffering for their impatience and insolence, it is Moshe and Aharon who are punished. Remarkably, they are accused of a lack of faith in God:

God said to Moshe and Aharon, 'You did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of the Israelites! Therefore, you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given you.' (Bamidbar 20:12)

The punishment is sudden and shocking, but what was the transgression that brought the leadership of Moshe and Aharon to an end? How could they, of all people who ever lived, be accused of not believing in God?

By this point in the narrative, we are accustomed to the complaints - the lovely food they had in Egypt,[1] the wisdom of having gone off to die in the desert rather than staying put in Egypt, where there were ample graveyards.[2] The complaints were taken to a new level by Datan and Aviram, who accused Moshe of having taken them FROM a land that flowed with milk and honey![3] Moshe reacts to this latest round of complaining in much the same way as he did when the people first began their complaints years before.[4] The two instances seem so similar to us that we are not surprised when Moshe once again strikes the rock to draw out water, this time adding a verbal rebuke for good measure:

Listen now, you rebels!' shouted Moshe. 'Shall we produce water for you from this rock?' (Bamidbar 20:10)

In what seems to be an expression of frustration with the cumulative corpus of complaints and criticism, Moshe lumps the latest example of the peoples' dissatisfaction together with all the previous episodes, calling them rebels. And yet, despite the general sense that this litany of complaints has been heard over and over, there is something different in this particular case.

The people did not have any water, so they began demonstrating against Moshe and Aharon. The people quarreled with Moshe. 'We wish that we had died together with our brothers before God!' they declared. 'Why did you bring God's congregation to this desert? So that we and our livestock should die? Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? It is an area where there are no plants, figs, grapes or pomegranates. [Now] there is not even any water to drink!' (Bamidbar 20:2-5)

When we look at their words carefully and compare them to the earlier water crisis, a few significant but subtle differences come to our attention. In both cases, the perfunctory "Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place?" is there, but other elements of their complaints are radically different: Now, the frame of reference has shifted. Rather than longing for the zucchini and watermelons of Egypt, the people bemoan the lack of "figs, grapes and pomegranates" - the fruits of the Land of Israel. In other words, rather than demanding to return to Egypt, as they had in the past, they are complaining that they are not in the Land of Israel. Moreover, their complaint reveals a deep-seated God-consciousness: "'We wish that we had died together with our brothers before God!'" and, "'Why did you bring God's congregation to this desert?"

This is a new generation, and they have made great forward strides. Whereas their fathers lamented ever having left the security and familiarity of Egypt, the generation of the children laments the fact that they have not yet arrived in the Promised Land. Whereas the previous generation had the audacity to question whether or not God was in their midst, this new generation is acutely aware of God's presence, and of their own unique status as a covenantal community. This is not the same complaint that we have heard time and time again - yet Moshe fails to hear the difference between what they are saying and what their parents said. He fails to appreciate the nuances, and responds as if they are murmuring the same complaints. He accuses them of being "rebels" without pausing to consider the validity of this accusation: To be sure, they were unhappy with their lot, dissatisfied with life in the desert - but is this not as it should be? Should not every Jew who finds himself outside of the Land of Israel feel unsettled, dissatisfied, incomplete?

When we read their complaints carefully, a new picture emerges: These people were not looking back with fond nostalgia, they were pining for the future. Far from attempting to shirk the destiny that awaited them, they were over-eager to embrace it. Rather than complaining about the demands that their peoplehood placed upon them, they sought out God's presence. If they were to die, they preferred to die "in front of God." These people thirsted for holiness - the holiness of the Land of Israel, and of proximity to God.

Moshe suffered from pre-conceived notions of what the people wanted. Rather than listening to what they actually said, he heard echoes of the past. It was Moshe who was looking backward, mistakenly attributing the mindset of the previous generation to the people who now stood before him. Moshe's sin was one of missed opportunity. By responding to what he thought they had said, and not to what they actually said, he failed to sanctify God in the eyes of this new generation.

Part of belief in God is belief in the Jewish People; Moshe expresses a lack of faith in the new generation when he calls them rebels, and is therefore guilty of a lack of faith in God Himself. God reprimands him: The Jewish People - this new generation that stands before Moshe and demands holiness, the generation that expresses deep yearning for the Land of Israel and awareness of God's involvement in their lives - has faith. It is Moshe, and not the young nation, who has failed to move ahead. Moshe hears the complaints of the past; in a very real sense, both he and Aharon are a part of the previous generation - the generation that would not merit the Land of Israel. Therefore, Moshe and Aharon were sentenced to stay behind with their own generation, while this new generation would make their way to the Land for which they longed, the land of their dreams.

For a more in-depth analysis see: http://arikahn.blogspot.co.il/2015/06/audio-and-essays-parashat-chukat.html

NOTES

1. Shmot 16:3, Bamidbar 11:4-5.

2. Bamidbar 14:2-3.

3. Bamidbar 16:13-14.

4. Shmot 17:2-7.

5. Bamidbar 11:5.

June 22, 2015

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