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Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“The Kohen shall immerse himself and immerse himself in water, and afterwards he may enter the camp; and the Kohen shall remain contaminated until evening.” (Numbers 19:7)

Parashat Chukat fast-forwards the Israelites 38 years to the ending of their desert journey. When the Israelites complain there is no water, God commands Moses to speak to the rock. Because Moses strikes the rock twice with his staff to bring forth water, God condemns Moses to die in the wilderness, rather than cross into Canaan with the people (Num. 20:8-12).

Commentators have made great hay over God’s edict, arguing across the centuries as to what Moses’ great sin was, exactly. The verse that follows the fateful episode hints at one answer: “They are the waters of strife, where the Children of Israel contended with the Lord, vayikadesh bam, and was sanctified by them” (Num. 20:13). Vayikadesh bam is ambiguous, grammatically. Most translations indicate God was sanctified by the Israelites. Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the classic 11th century Jewish commentator) says it refers to Moses and Aaron. Nachmanides (1194- 1270; the leading Sephardic authority of his era) says it refers to the waters.

Another possibility, though, is that it refers to the Children of Israel. If so, Moses’ sin becomes clear. God intends to create a sanctified moment, but Moses doesn’t follow God’s protocol, robbing the Israelites of that experience (as God wanted it to be). God isn’t offended for himself; he is dismayed Moses has taken a sacred moment from the people, which might have helped them become, “…A kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” (Ex. 19:6), sanctified by God. Because of this, regardless of Moses’ personal connection to the sacred, it is time for him to step down.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

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