Parashat Hukkat

When To Talk And When To Act

Comparing Moshe to Yiftah raises questions about when we should be people of speech and when we should be people of action.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

This week I want to do something a bit different. As I'm sure many of you know, in addition to reading in the synagogue the weekly Torah portion, there is a tradition to follow that reading with a short selection from one of the books of the prophets. Typically, this section, called the 'haftarah' or 'leave-taking' (the idea being that it is a kind of epilogue or coda to the Torah reading) is connected in some thematic way to the Torah portion. This week I would like to talk about the Torah reading together with the Haftarah.

In the Torah reading, near the end of the parshah, which, according to the rabbinic understanding takes place towards the end of the 40-year trek through the desert, we are told that there was a water shortage: "Now there was no water for the nation, so they gathered against Moshe and against Aharon…saying…why did you bring the congregation of God into this wilderness to die there, us, along with our cattle…?"

God appears to Moshe, and tells him to take his staff, assemble the community, and speak to a rock, which will give forth water. Famously, Moshe somehow gets it wrong, and commits what for him will be an ultimate, tragic sin, for which he will be punished by being denied entry into the Holy Land.

Moshe assembles the people, and says, "Listen here, you rebels, from this stone shall we bring forth for you water?" Moshe then strikes the stone with his staff, twice, and water flows out of it. Subsequently, God informs him that by doing so he has sinned, grievously: "You did not believe in me, to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land that I am giving them."

For centuries, the rabbis have debated the precise nature of Moshe's sin. Some feel that it was Moshe's anger--his branding the people "rebels," and his nasty tone of voice and choice of language. Others focus on the speaking to/hitting the rock question; although Moshe was instructed by God to take his staff, he was clearly told to speak to the rock, and, instead, he hit it, twice. Many commentaries see this as another sign of anger, and/or of disregard for the precise demands made by God.

It may be that Moshe, who has consistently, over the period of the Exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering in the desert, used his staff to hit things, was now being instructed to symbolically take the people of Israel, as they ready themselves to enter the land of Israel, to a higher, more mature level, in which speech, rather than violent action, was to be preferred. If so, his regressive behavior in hitting the rock communicated precisely the wrong message to the Israelites.  Had he spoken to the rock, the Israelites could have the learned the value of obedience to the word of God, rather than a fear of His wrath, as being the desirable mode of interaction with Him, and that speech, rather than violent action, is the preferred mode of human behavior.

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.