Chukat: Connectivity

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Wooden Wheelbarrow
16 Jun 2010

A classic story:

During wartime, a certain individual would come to the country’s border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. The border guard looked at the man’s papers and all was in order for him to cross. But the guard was certain the man was smuggling some sort of contraband in the wheelbarrow. So the guard took a shovel, poked around in the dirt, but found nothing. The man was allowed to cross.

The next week, the man once again comes to the border with a wheelbarrow full of dirt. Again, the border guard found that the papers were in order and dug through the dirt, but still found nothing. And again, the man was allowed to cross.

Week after week, it was the same story: Man approaches the border with wheelbarrow full of dirt. Guard finds nothing of interest and the man crosses.

At the end of the war, the guard sees the man and asks him: “Look, I know you were smuggling something across the border, but I could never find a thing hidden in the dirt. What were you smuggling all those years?”

The man answered: “Wheelbarrows.”

For most, Moshe’s sin (1) is a foregone conclusion, we all “know” (Rashi’s (2) approach) that he hit the rock rather than spoke to it. Default conceptions however may force us to miss the wheelbarrows; Ramban’s obvious questions on Rashi loom large – for at the end of the day, when you’re trying to get water from a rock is there really any difference between hitting it and speaking to it (As a teacher, whose job (at times) is to get water from rocks, I can testify that hitting and speaking are equally hopeless approaches). Further, says Ramban, why did Hashem tell Moshe to pick up the stick (v.8) if not to hit the rock, – something we saw Moshe do with the plagues and beyond?

Ibn Ezra discards several approaches (3) and then presents his own: The need to hit the rock a 2nd (v.10) time bespoke a lack of proper initial kavanah. For this lack of focus, Moshe is punished. Ramban simply asks why then does the Torah label this a lack of faith (v.12)?

Rambam (4) finds Moshe’s sin in the term shim’u na hamorim (listen you rebels), Moshe’s preamble to striking the rock. Moshe, the messenger par excellence of God, expressed personal anger towards klal Yisrael. The people naturally assumed that Moshe’s anger reflected the Divine state of things; as such his actions represent a chillul Hashem – for God was not angry with Bnei Yisrael. Ramban strongly rejects this approach on several grounds. Why is this called a lack of faith (v.12)? Why should Aharon be punished for Moshe’s anger (5)? Who said that Moshe got angry – we only hear rebuke in the text and rebuke doth not anger make! Finally, how is it possible that Hashem wasn’t angry, after all these years the Jews are still complaining about leaving Egypt and isn’t this the simple meaning of “Bnei Yisrael who fought with Hashem” (v.13)!?

Begrudgingly, Ramban goes for Rabbeinu Chananel’s approach: Moshe and Aharon for but a moment ascribed miraculous powers to themselves. “Shall it be from this rock that WE shall extract water”. Such a momentary slip was a miniscule diminution of the Divine and jives well with the lack of faith motif expressed in v. 12

Many other approaches abound. Minimally, one thing is clear: whatever Moshe’s misdeed, it was subtle and slight. In the words of one of the commentaries:

Moshe committed but one sin, but our commentators have heaped on him thirteen and more… I have refrained from going into this problem for fear I might attribute a new sin to Moshe

The world knows Rashi, and with him we shall conclude. Through the prism of the Netziv, Rashi’s approach yields incredible depth.

The desert experience, especially in its final year, was to provide a transition from miracle mode to natural existence. The manna, the well, falling quail, hail, etc., all hallmarks of the midbar experience, was no longer to be God’s modus operandi (6) in Eretz Yisrael. There bread would eaten, but only after threshing, sowing, reaping, winnowing, kneading and baking. The Jews had to figure out this new reality.

In the desert, they will be weaned. Now, Bnei Yisrael are about to experience their first trial run. What happens when there isn’t enough rain in Eretz Yisrael? (And it does happen!)

Hashem says: Moshe, Speak not at the rock or to the rock – but by the rock. Gather the people; pray and learn together. Mimic the conditions of gathering that you will need to evoke when there is a drought in Eretz Yisrael. (Teach them maseches ta’anis). Teach them the new method of responding to crisis. Moshe, take the stick – the one associated with so many miracles (splitting of the sea, the plagues) – but don’t use it! At the end of the day, Moshe reverts to the old technique and does not teach the new methodology. He is thus compelled to die in the desert.

As I said good bye to my students not long ago, I tried (the time hallowed tradition of) bribing them to learn over the summer. One notion I shared with them was that those that learn and daven properly over the summer make the Torah not an object of duty but a labor of love, and more significantly begin to acquire it personally.

Chinuch, Rashi teaches (Bereishis, 14:14), means education for dedication, i.e. educating one to the point that they remain committed to an ideal even beyond the formal training. As the Jews left the desert, what they needed to learn was that Hashem is not only found in the miraculous nor is He only accessed through Moshe. Karov Hashem l’chol Korav. He is close to all that call Him. That sense of connectivity, of a personal natural relationship with Hashem is a message that we would do well pass on to our next generation.

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1. Here is the text that we will refer to throughout the thought. It is important to note that a simple read indicates no wrongdoing until we encounter verse 12 : 3: The people quarreled with Moshe and said, “Would that we had died by our brothers’ death before Hashem. 4: Why did you bring the congregation of Hashem into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die there? 5: Why did you take us out of Egypt and bring us to this terrible place? It is not a place of seed, figs, grapes, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink”! 6: Moshe and Aharon moved away from the assembly to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces; the glory of Hashem appeared to them. 7: Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying. 8: “Take the staff and assemble the community, you and Aharon your brother, and speak to the rock in their presence that it may give forth its water; you will then bring forth for them water from the rock, and give drink [to] the community and their livestock.” 9: Moshe took the staff from before Hashem, as He instructed him. 10: Moshe and Aharon assembled the community before the rock; [Moshe] said to them, “Listen, you rebels! Can we extract water from this rock for you”? 11: And Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice; water rushed out abundantly, and the community and their livestock drank. 12: Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon, “Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the presence of Bnei Yisroel; therefore, you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them.” 13: They are the waters of dispute where Bnei Yisroel contended with Hashem, and He was sanctified through them.

2. Rashi 20:11, s.v. pa’amayim; 20:12, s.v. l’hakdisheini; cf Rashi, Devarim 32:51, s.v. al

3. including a fascinating suggestion that Moshe should have recited shira when the water emerged as he did later on (21:17)

4. Shemoneh Perakim, Ch. 4

5. One must note that Aharon is also held culpable in this event (v. 12). Also, note that it was only Moshe that said shimu nah (v. 10 vayomer lahem )

6. Netziv develops this idea in many directions. The pesukim of vayehi binso ha’aron serve as the transition within the book of bamidbar – hence they are a book unto themselves. Bamidbar is called the book of numbers because it is through the two censuses that we can see this transition. In the first one, Ephrayim (the more spiritual) who is placed before Menashe and at the end of the book it is it is Menashe before Ephrayim .

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.