Leadership and Dissent: Chukat-Balak Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

In this week’s parashat, there are at least five possible vignettes to comment upon:

  • The laws of the red heifer to purify a person in contact with a corpse
  • Moses strikes a rock to obtain water for the people and God bans him from entering the Promised Land
  • The death of Aaron
  • Balak and Balaam – the latter’s blessing rather than cursing of the Israelites
  • The punishment of the plague for consorting with Moabites and the murder by the vigilante, Pinchas, of one of those men and his consort.

I want to comment on the second story because of its outstanding significance for the history of Jews and the ethos being passed onto them, the revelations about the character of Moses, but mainly for the continuation of the discussion of the theme of dissension that has run as a very important thread through the volume. The other tales will be treated as borders to this central narrative.

As readers may recall, in last week’s commentary, I summarized the series of dissents culminating in the rebellion of Korah as follows:

  1. Dissent at being excluded from religious rituals because of contact with a corpse; resolved by a pragmatic substitute.
  2. Hobab, the Midianite, intended departure; resolved by promising an equal share of the bounty of the Promised Land and equality of treatment under the law.
  3. Riots and fires set by a petulant people over restricted food availability that makes Moses exasperated; resolved by delegation of some of Moses responsibilities re meting out justice and by more food for the people.
  4. Rebellion of Miriam (and Aaron) over Moses’ exclusive access to God and position of first among the leadership; resolved by punishment of Miriam – she becomes leprous and is excluded from the community for a week.
  5. The dissent of ten of the twelve tribal leaders re the possibility of invading the Promised Land because of the strength of the inhabitants and their fortifications; resolved by God ensuring the rebels that they will not enter the Promised Land and making the Israelites stay in the desert for forty years until everyone over 20 dies out and is thus unable to enter.
  6. The rebellion of Korah and his followers and their challenge to Moses’ rule; resolved by the earth swallowing up the rebels and their families alive.

We now have the culmination of that series of rebellions. It starts with a complaint by the people that, in addition to the absence of adequate food, they have no water – a legitimate complaint on the face of it. The Torah then said that both Moses and Aaron “fell on their faces” (20:6), that is, made an error in judgement. What was their error? God appears and speaks to Moses instructing them to take a rod and before the whole community order the rock to yield water. Moses assembles the people before the rock and addresses them: “listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” (20:10) Moses strikes the rock twice and it yields water.

Moses in then punished for “disobeying God’s command to uphold His sanctity by means of the water.” (20:24; 27:14) Moses’ punishment – he is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.

Jonathan Sacks wrote: No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time. Yet he was not destined to enter the land to which he had spent his entire time as a leader travelling toward. Why?

Was Moses punished because he lost his temper, as Maimonides suggested. For not adhering to the mean, according to the Rambam following Aristotle, for moderation in all things was the highest virtue. And Moses failed to be even tempered. Was Moses punished because he had lost his faith in Divine grace and relied on hitting the rock rather than simply repeating God’s instructions? Though Moses continued obediently to fulfil his duties, he himself never understood why he was punished and instead blamed the people, insisting that it was because of their petulance and impatience that he ended up suffering.  

Moses made an error in judgement. Several errors in fact. Moses called the people rebels when this time they were simply registering a legitimate complaint. He referred to his, not God’s getting the water from the rock. Third, he contemptuously addressed the people with a sarcastic rhetorical question. Fourth, instead of speaking to the rock, he struck it, not once but twice, presumably taking out his anger at the perceived effrontery of the people and his own continuing frustrations with the burden of leadership all these decades. In other words, Moses blew it.

God was furious and accused Moses and Aaron of lacking trust in Him. Where was the lack of trust? It was not as if God raged at the Israelites; He gave his instructions to Moses calmly. It was not about whether God would or would not produce the water from the rock. It was about their failure “trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.” (20:12) (See also 20:24 and 27:14 re blaming Moses for his disobedience of God’s command to uphold his sanctity by means of the water.”) The reference is to “we,” not God getting the water out of the rock, and then Moses behaving indignantly in rage and frustration rather than in faith and trust, hitting the rock rather than simply giving it instructions.

The illegitimate action here is not that of the complaining people or of jealous rivals. Moses and Aaron are at fault. They are at fault for their mistrust of God. They are at fault for unfairly disparaging the people. They are burnt out as leaders.

The Ghost in Hamlet tells Hamlet, “Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing to what I shall unfold.” (Act 1 Scene 5) He expected Hamlet to listen very carefully to his observations and reflections, to his instructions and warning. God also expected Moses to listen to Him carefully. But by this time, Moses had lost the art of reading his people. He never had the oratorical art of addressing them. But now he has lost the art of listening attentively even to God. (Cf. 23:19) Moses is spent. He is exhausted. He cannot do his job anymore. If Moses does not trust God, if Moses does not trust his people, if Moses is racked by rage and frustration, it is time he retired.

Moses was not prevented from entering the Promised Land because he was egotistical and relied too much on himself; he was not guilty of the sin of pride. Nor was Moses’ action an illustration of the limitations of the central theme of Judaism, the rule and centrality of law and the adumbration of the need and coming of Jesus as Luke claimed. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (24:27)

Nor was Moses, following in the footsteps of Korah, guilty of being a rebel against God and deliberately disobeying His commands. This is, perhaps, following Rashi, the most common and frequent explanation. Certainly, Moses did not obey God when he struck the rock rather than speaking to it but there is no indication that the disobedience was deliberate, was intentional. Rather, it seemed thoughtless.

Not pride, not disobedience and rebellion in themselves, not an inability to rise to Christ’s sanctity! Moses was characterized by his humility. Even when he was punished by God, Moses continued in his role as His faithful servant, led his people and continued to serve God. However, he blamed them for his punishment. After all, the Israelites first revolted against Moses in the desert by the waters of Meribah. There, following the cries and complaints of the people, Moses struck the rock and it gushed forth water. “By the waters of Meribah, they angered the Lord and trouble came to Moses because of them.” (Psalm 106:32) Moses saw this new incident as a repetition of the one in the desert so Moses struck the rock twice instead of just once.

Moses and God had the power to produce water. Here, the question is about God’s sanctity, which was not the issue of the waters of Meribah.  The issue of the recent demonstrations of Black Lives Matter has been the sanctity of non-white people and their quality of being holy and sacred like any other human. The issue here is not about profane power but about the sacredness of God. What is that sacredness that Moses profaned?

God is not an infinite all-powerful Being but a Becoming. God is He who shall be. God is He who reveals himself over time and within time, within history. Moses disobeyed God’s command to uphold His sanctity because Moses simply interpreted the current situation as identical to the one in the desert beside the waters of Meribah. However, history had moved on. Time had moved on. Moses was no longer the leader of fearful slaves in flight from Egypt but of a large band of warriors ready for battle.

Moses did not have to strike the rock. He just needed to pass on God’s instructions. He needed to reserve his strength to strike his enemies. He needed to read the situation he faced. He needed to listen to God. (23:19) This time, the problem was not one of exercising or delegating power, but of exercising that power with words of realism and reason rather than magical history and a nostalgic repletion of the past. In one of the other vignettes in this portion, Balak wanted his prophet, Balaam, to attend, to listen to him. But Balaam had heard even an ass tell him that he was blind to what was going on. He had to wake up and smell the roses. He had to learn to listen to God, not Balaam. He did. Moses did not. Moses was still stuck in the glories and pains of the past. Moses could speak and no longer stutter. He no longer had to perform magic tricks and strike rocks. He needed to be prepared to strike enemies, even former allies like the tribe of Hobab and his father-in-law, the Midianites. Moses had to demonstrate a new kind of responsibility and a new kid of ruthlessness.

The sanctity by means of water is the sanctity of change. Water is not merely a bodily requirement. It is holy because it sanctifies change, sanctifies a God who reveals himself over time and for a particular time instead of having a perfect eternal essence. Heraclitus wrote, “In the same river we both step and do not step, we are and are not” (Ancient Philosophy, 20). [He did not write, as Plato claimed, “We cannot step twice in the same river.”] For, in Moses’ case, there are two very different waters and two very different requirements of holiness.

At the same time, there is repetition and continuity. The trick is to figure out what is the same and what is different. Moses failed in that responsibility, failed to listen, failed to see and failed to translate what he heard and saw into appropriate action. Moses was still in touch with the dead corpse of the

Israelites and had not really learned the meaning of the ritual of the red heifer which would have freed him from such an attachment. He was no longer dealing with a tribe of slaves inculcated in absolute obedience and fear but a people of the frontier who had absorbed the lessons of freedom. Moses had not learned the art of political persuasion.

However, why was Moses not allowed to enter and be buried in the Promised Land? Was that not dealing too harshly with him? I believe it was. But that is because there was no longer anyone to give boundaries to God. After all, that is what Moses often did – but on behalf of others. There was no one left to take on that responsibility for him. Miriam was dead. Aaron was old and feeble and totally passive. And everyone with ultimate power – even God – needs boundaries. Everyone who provides leadership needs another leader to temper any propensity to authoritarianism. Moses’ greatest failure was his failure to recognize his responsibilities to God, his duty to argue with God, his assigned task to insist on limitations on behalf of the people on God’s power.  

It is for that failure that he received such an extreme punishment – extreme for him.

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