“Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him.” (Numbers 20:9)
Parashat Chukat contains a most fateful episode. The Israelites complain there is no water (as usual). Moses consults with God (as usual). God instructs Moses (as usual). And then unusual happens: Moses apparently doesn’t follow God’s instructions. Instead of speaking to the rock to bring forth water, he hits it twice. Moses is condemned to die in the wilderness along with the rest of the Israelites (Num. 20:12), even though the precipitating act is not identified.
While the classic commentators all have their own opinion as to exactly what Moses’ sin is, Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903–94; an Israeli intellectual known for his outspoken opinions on Judaism, ethics, religion and politics) makes an interesting observation. Three times in the Torah Moses asks God to annul the decree (that he will not enter the land), but does not ask forgiveness. And since we read in Psalms, “…and Moses suffered because of them,” (Ps. 106:32), Leibowitz infers Moses himself actually did not sin. Rather Moses is punished for the sins of the people. If that’s true, why?
The story of Moses hitting the rock usually is read as a lesson in self-control, anger, and faith. Leibowitz highlights a more general, yet more central truth about Jewish approaches to leadership: the leader’s destiny is bound up in the fate of the people. Moses may be innocent personally, but he is responsible by virtue of his office. It is improper for Moses to reach the land if no one else can, for their sins were committed “on his watch.” Moses’ story raises a striking question: if no one following, are you really leading?
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom