“The Israelites then marched on and encamped in the steppes of Moav,
across the Jordan from Jericho.” (Numbers 22:1)
The ancient Greeks believed hubris is the source of human tragedy. Parashat Chukat shows even Moses, considered the most humble of men, is not immune. Chukat contains the fateful episode of the rock: the Israelites complain there is no water so God instructs Moses, “You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water.” (Num. 20:8) Moses strikes the rock and God condemns him to die in the desert.
Classic commentators interpret Moses’ striking the rock as an abrupt demonstration of his lack of faith in God. Jacob Milgrom (1923–2010; prominent American rabbi and Biblical scholar) focusses on something else: hubris. The clues are apparent even last week, when Moses suggest to Korach and his rabble God will open the earth and swallow them up (Num. 16:30), even before God announces this plan to him. That’s a first for Moses. That’s hubris.
This week, Moses violates another yet another standard procedure of revelation: silence. Moses’ sin isn’t striking the rock, it’s speaking. Up until now, Moses announces God’s miracles, but then stands silent (in contrast to foreign wonder workers) to spotlight God’s ultimate power. By violating the required silence, Moses isn’t demonstrating a lack of faith in God; he’s demonstrating too much faith in himself. That’s why the Book of Psalms states, “They rebelled against Him and Moses spoke rashly.” (Ps. 106:33) More hubris.
Moses is the paradigmatic Jewish leader, but he has his failings. Chukat is a reminder: if it’s all about you, you’re probably not leading.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom