“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community,
and before their very eyes tell the rock to yield its water…” (Numbers 20:8)
Parashat Chukat moves the story of the Israelites forward 38 years. Miriam, Moses sister, dies, and the Israelites complain (again!) that there is no water in the desert. Moses consults with God, assembles the Israelites, strikes the rock with his staff, brings forth water, and is promptly condemned to die in the wilderness (along with Aaron) and not to enter the land of Canaan. Classic commentators are divided on what was Moses’ great sin.
Rashi (an acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the classic 11th century Jewish commentator) claims that in striking the rock, rather than speaking to it, as God instructed, Moses diminishes God’s miracle. Maimonides (the preeminent Spanish 12th century Jewish philosopher) says Moses’ calling the Israelites “rebels,” a sign of anger, would lead the Israelites to assume that God also was angry (which was not the case). Nachmanides (a 13th century Spanish commentator) thinks it is that Moses says, “Shall we bring forth water for you from the rock?” (Numbers 20:11) implying that he (and Aaron) had the power to create the miracle. Abarbanel (1437-1508; Portuguese Torah scholar, diplomat, financier, and mystic) notes that Moses and Aaron had sinned before, but only now are called to task. After all, their sins (the golden calf and sending the spies) led to the Israelites being condemned to die in the desert; once they sinned again, they were given the same punishment.
It is impossible to know which commentator is right. It is also irrelevant. The point is that each commentator chose the meaning that made sense to him. JCCs follow that tradition of interpretation, helping members and their friends construct personal meaning from the Jewish life around them.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,