Chukat: Confronting Complaints – Separating Substance from Form

And Bnai Yisrael – the entire congregation – came to the Wilderness of Tzin, in the first month. The nation was situated in Kadesh and Miryam died there and was buried there. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:1)

1. The thirty-eight year gap in the Torah

The twentieth chapter of Sefer BeMidbar begins by announcing that the events that will be described occurred in the first month of the year. The Torah does not clearly state to which year it refers. However, Rashi indicates the year in his comments on a latter phrase in the passage. The passage states that “Bnai Yisrael – the entire congregation” arrived in the Wilderness of Tzin. The phrase “the entire congregation” seems superfluous. However, Rashi suggests that the phrase is intended to communicate an important message. According to Rashi, the phrase communicates that Bnai Yisrael arrived at the Wilderness of Tzin as a complete congregation. It was no longer a mixture of those who would merit to enter the Land of Israel and the members of the generation that had been condemned to die in the wilderness. Those who were condemned to die in the wilderness had died, and now, their children composed a new generation that was destined to possess the Land.[1]

This means that the events that will be described occurred in the fortieth year of the nation’s sojourn in the wilderness. Furthermore, the Torah is revealing that it is discussing a new generation. Through Parshat Korach, the Torah discussed the experiences of the generation that was redeemed from Egypt. Parshat Chukat resumes the description of the Bnai Yisrael experiences after a passage of thirty-eight years – in the fortieth year of the nation’s journey towards the Land of Israel.

And there was no water for the congregation and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon. The nation argued with Moshe and said: We wish we had died the death of our brothers before Hashem. Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem to this wilderness to die there – us and our cattle? Why did you bring us up from Egypt to bring us to this wicked place – not a place which is planted, and has figs, grape fines, and pomegranates? And there is no water to drink. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:2-5)

2. The nation’s complaint and Moshe’s and Ahron’s response

Bnai Yisrael arrive to the Wilderness of Tzin and they have no water. They complain to Moshe and Aharon; they accuse them of failing to fulfill their promise to bring them to a rich and fertile land. They tell them that they would prefer to have died earlier rather than face the miserable death by thirst that now confronts them. Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to bring forth water from a rock. Moshe and Aharon assemble the nation; Moshe sternly chastises them for their failure of faith – referring to the people as rebels. Then, Moshe completes the mission. He strikes the rock and brings forth water.

But Hashem criticizes Moshe and Aharon for their conduct. He tells them that because they acted inappropriately, they will not lead the people into the Land of Israel. Indeed, they will perish in the wilderness. However, the Torah does not reveal the exact nature of their transgression.

Rashi suggests that Moshe sinned in striking the rock. Hashem has instructed Moshe to speak to the rock and to bring forth its water without exerting physical force upon it.[2] Rashbam essentially agrees with Rashi. However, his comments include a curious and important observation. He acknowledges that Hashem told Moshe to “speak” to the rock. However, Moshe has good cause to misinterpret this command. Moshe assumed that this instruction should not be understood literally. Hashem had also instructed him to take with him his staff. Rocks are not sentient. Moshe understood that “speaking” in this context communicated an instruction to use this staff to strike the rock.[3]

Nachmanides completely rejects the proposition that Moshe was not expected to use the staff. He notes that in his instructions, Hashem directed Moshe to take his staff with him. Nachmanides contends that Hashem gave Moshe this direction with the intention that he should use the staff.[4]

And Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation before the rock. And he said to them: Listen now rebels. Will I bring forth for you water from this rock? (Sefer BeMidbar 20:10)

3. Moshe sinned in demonstrating anger

Maimonides contends that Moshe and Aharon sinned in demonstrating anger. Anger was not an appropriate response in this situation. Moshe and Aharon were role models for the people. The people assumed that all of their actions and attitudes were worthy of emulation. By demonstrating unwarranted anger, their behavior suggested that anger was appropriate in this situation. They allowed their personal angst to supersede their responsibility as teachers.[5]

Maimonides’s position is difficult to understand. Why was Moshe and Aharon’s anger unwarranted? The people had accused them of failing to keep their promise. They were contentious, disrespectful, and ungrateful. This generation – the children of the generation that had been denied entry into the Land – was repeating the very same complaints Moshe and Aharon had heard thirty-eight years earlier. Can there be any doubt that they deserved and needed a forceful rebuke? Is Maimonides suggesting that Moshe and Aharon should have ignored and thereby condoned the nation’s impertinence? Maimonides contends that Moshe and Aharon were Bnai Yisrael’s teachers and role models. Sometimes a teacher should demonstrate his chagrin. At times, leaders must model intolerance and contempt for insolence. How can Maimonides insist that Moshe and Aharon’s anger was unjustified?

4. Responding to complaints – separating substance from form

In order to understand Maimonides’s position, first we must separate the substance of Bnai Yisrael’s complaint from the form in which it was expressed. The substance of their distress was fully justified. They were in a hostile wilderness and they had no source of water. They would soon perish if this basic need was not addressed. However, in their intense distress, they expressed themselves in an inappropriate and impertinent manner.

As leaders and teachers, Moshe and Aharon were required to respond to both the appropriate substance of the request and unsuitable form in which it was expressed. They must provide the nation with water and they must rebuke the nation for its impertinence. However, Moshe and Aharon sinned in responding to the nation’s contentiousness before fully addressing the substance of their complaint – before relieving their thirst. In other words, Moshe and Aharon sinned in choosing the wrong moment to rebuke Bnai Yisrael. In their intense distress, the nation could not begin to grasp the message Moshe and Aharon were attempting to communicate. The people could only hear their anger and disappointment. As teachers and role models they should have first responded to the nation’s need and after calm and tranquility were restored the opportunity for rebuke would emerge.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:1.
[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:12.
[3] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:10.
[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:7.
[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Commentary on the Mishne, Introduction to Mesechet Avot, chapter 4.