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Chukat | The Striking of the Rock

Rav Michael Hattin
In memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise z"l.




Parashat Chukat opens with the ritual of the Para Aduma, or Red Heifer.  According to the proscriptions of the Torah, one who has come in contact with a human corpse is deemed tameh, or ritually unfit to enter the precincts of the Mishkan or the Mikdash.  In order to emerge from this state of tum'a, the said individual must first be sprinkled with the Mai Chatat, or Waters of Purification.  After its slaughter outside of the camp and the ritual sprinkling of its blood, the body of the red heifer is set alight.  As the bonfire burns, cedar wood, hyssop and crimson are added to the flames.  The resulting ashes are collected and are then combined with spring water; a bundle of hyssop is dipped into the mixture and, with it, the individual is sprinkled on the third and seventh days.  After immersion in a mikva at the conclusion of the rite, the person returns to a state of tahara or ritual fitness, and is again able to enter the Tabernacle or Temple area.


In the very next section, the Torah relates that "the entire congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month, and encamped at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried…" (BeMidbar 20:1).  As the commentaries point out, at this juncture the Torah begins to narrate events that took place at the conclusion of the period of wandering, which had commenced almost forty years earlier. In fact, the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) points out, the Torah records not a single event or prophecy that occurred in the intervening thirty eight years since the Exodus from Egypt!  This remarkable observation highlights the appropriateness of the section concerning the red heifer serving as the transitional narrative, as the Torah proceeds from the account of the generation of the Exodus to the story of their children, who now stand ready to enter the Land. 



The Linkage of the Red Heifer


As Rashi explains, the emphatic expression 'the ENTIRE congregation of Bnei Yisrael came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month' implies that the congregation of which the Torah now speaks was whole and complete, for 'the generation of the wilderness had perished, while this new generation had been separated for life.'  In other words, the rite of the red heifer, necessary to effect the change of state of one who has come in contact with the corpse, to allow reentry into the life-giving presence of God, is here presented as the linking passage between the generations.  Those who had left Egypt had been condemned to their sad fate and had passed on; their children now stand ready to cast off the 'death' associated with their passing as they solemnly prepare to perpetuate life in the new land that beckons.


The preceding introduction, offering a somber study in contrasts between parents and offspring, dissipated potential and realization, sheds light on the events that follow, which are among the most inscrutable in the Torah.  "The congregation did not have water and they gathered against Moshe and Aharon.  The people strove with Moshe, exclaiming 'if only we had perished along with our brethren, before God!  Why then did you bring God's congregation into this wilderness, to die along with our flocks!  Why then did you take us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place!  It is not a place of sowing, nor of figs, grapes or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink!'  Moshe and Aharon left their presence to go to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell upon their faces in supplication.  God's glory then appeared to them" (BeMidbar 20:1-6).  Following a well-worn script rehearsed at every previous occasion of discomfort and deficiency, the people cry out in bitter complaint and bemoan their sorry state.  The faded memory of the Egyptian bondage, more attractive with each passing year, is ironically recalled by the people to serve as a source of comfort for their parched condition.



Moshe's Failure


"God spoke to Moshe and said: 'Take the staff and, together with Aharon your brother, gather the people.  Speak to the rock in their presence and it will give forth its waters; you shall extract water for them from the rock and provide water for the congregation and its flocks.'  Moshe took the staff from before God's presence as he had been commanded.  Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them: 'listen you rebels!  Shall we extract water for you from this rock?'  Moshe lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff.  The water poured forth from the rock and the congregation and its flocks drank.  God spoke to Moshe and Aharon: 'because you did not trust in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of Bnei Yisrael, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land that I have given them.'  These were the Waters of Struggle, at which Bnei Yisrael strove with God, and He was sanctified by them" (BeMidbar 20:7-13). 


Commanded to speak to the rock, Moshe instead strikes it, and in consequence is denied entry into the very land that he had so desired to see.  What is the meaning of this inexplicable series of verses?  How are we to understand God's unusual directive to speak to the rock and Moshe's failure to fulfill His words?  Is God any less sanctified by a rock that miraculously gives forth water under blows than by one that is addressed?  Is there any indication in the text that the people were even aware of God's directive to Moshe, that they should be less impressed by His ability to bring forth water from the rock only after Moshe strikes it?  The commentaries have advanced a myriad of explications to address God's command and Moshe's downfall, with Ibn Ezra adducing no less than eight possibilities, and Rashi, Rambam and Ramban advancing more.  The plethora of interpretations is a sure sign that the text is too intentionally obscure to furnish us with a definitive answer.



The Precedent at Chorev


Let us take the liberty of offering a different reading, one that is in consonance with the theme of the 'generations' explicated above.  Although most readers are familiar only with the account of Moshe striking the rock that our parasha preserves, there is in fact an earlier one that the Torah records in the Book of Shemot.  After the people had successfully traversed the sea of Reeds as their Egyptian overlords were swept away by its waters, the people entered the hostile and foreboding wilderness of Shur.  There they found no water and cried out, and God sweetened the bitter waters of 'Marah' for their consumption.  The people continued on to the wilderness of Seen, entering its vast, inhospitable confines a short and arduous month after their exodus from Egypt. 


After securing the provision of miraculous manna to assuage their hunger and to sustain them, the people commenced travel in accordance with God's command and encamped at Refidim, "and there was no water there for the people to drink.  The people strove with Moshe saying: 'give us water to drink!'  Moshe said to them: 'why do you strive with me, and why do you assay God?'  The people thirsted for water and railed against Moshe, saying: 'why did you bring us forth from Egypt, to kill us, our children and our flocks by thirst?'  Moshe cried out to God saying: 'what shall I do for this people, for soon they will stone me!'  God said to Moshe: 'pass before the people and take the elders of Israel with you.  Take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go.  Behold, My presence is before you there at the rock in Chorev; strike the rock so that water will pour forth, and then the people can drink.'  Moshe did so in the presence of the elders of Israel.  The place was therefore called 'Masah uMeriva,' for Bnei Yisrael strove with God and tried Him, saying: 'is God in our midst or isn't He?'" (Shemot/Exodus 17:1-7).



Comparisons and Contrasts


The conspicuous parallels with our passage are undeniable.  In both cases, the people enter a barren and arid wilderness, bemoan their predicament and threaten to come to blows with Moshe.  In both cases, it is a parching thirst that provokes tempers and incites the people to cry out against God.  In both cases, the people present the soothing mirage of the sojourn in Egypt as the most attractive alternative to perishing in the wilderness.  In both cases, water is miraculously brought forth from adamant rock and the people's thirst is quenched. 


There are, of course, three glaring contrasts that separate these two events removed from each other in time by a period of almost forty years.  In the first case, Moshe alone is to secure God's beneficent gift of free-flowing water in the presence of the elders of Israel.  In our parasha, on the other hand, the miracle is to be done by both Moshe and Aharon in the presence of all of the people of Israel.  Even more startling, at Refidim, Moshe is specifically commanded to 'strike the rock,' while at Midbar Tzin he and Aharon are told to 'speak to the rock.'  How are we to understand these two episodes that the Torah clearly wants us to correlate?  How are we to interpret the fact that the entire experience of the wilderness is effectively bracketed by these two incidents, the former taking place just as the people begin their journey into its unforgiving maw and the latter unfolding as they finally emerge alive from its lethal embrace?



The Symbolism of Rock and Water


The key to unraveling the matter perhaps lies in correctly interpreting the divergent symbology of rock and water.  These two primary elements, both lying at the core of the events, are related by a process that transforms one into the other.  As the Ramban parenthetically remarks in our parasha, the expression that the rock 'will give forth its waters' implies that the water is to emerge from the essence of the rock itself.  It is not to straightforwardly emerge from the ground beneath, after the manner of a concealed underwater spring (commentary to BeMidbar 20:8).  Thus, the Torah does not speak of two unrelated substances that share only wildly contrasting properties, but rather of two materials that are inextricably bound up together by the matrix of transformation.  In the presence of God's command, the inanimate, unyielding rock, devoid of any natural moisture, is to undergo a metamorphosis and become flowing, life-giving water.  What is the significance of this sequence?


In scattered references throughout the Hebrew Bible, the human heart is occasionally compared to the impervious rock.  Capable of inattention, indifference, and insensitivity to the word of God, the human heart can become a hardened organ, a vital structure that defines a life of self-centeredness and inability to feel other's pain.  Unyielding as rock, hard as adamant stone, the human heart can condone acts of injustice and commit deeds of cruelty that even the most vicious of carnivores could not conjure up.  It is not without cause that the brutal Pharaoh's intransigence in the early chapters of the Book of Shemot, the same Pharaoh who could enslave a nation and cast their male offspring into the Nile to die, is characterized by the Torah as possessing 'hardness of heart.'  Yet, that same human heart can become softened and sensitive, animated and concerned, full of compassion for the plight of another and touched by the spirit of contrition.  The hard and deadened heart can also be a life-giving fountain, a source of vitality and vigor, a wellspring and reservoir of love and benevolence.  In the frame of reference of the Torah, it is the word of God alone that has the ability to effect such a profound transformation. 



Yechezkel's Vision


When sincerely touched by God's healing message, the human being can marshal the strength necessary to overcome the lethargy and lifelessness of a detached and insensitive heart and to initiate the process of moral and spiritual renewal.  Thus, the Prophet Yechezkel who witnessed the moral and spiritual degradation that led to the destruction of the First Temple, looks forward to better days, when God will gather the scattered remnant of His people from the four corners of the globe and bring them to their land.  At that time, says God, "I shall sprinkle you with pure water and you shall become pure, pure from all of the defilement of your idolatry and transgressions.  I shall give you a new heart and shall place a new spirit within you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your being and give you in its place a heart of flesh.  I shall put My spirit within you and shall cause you to follow My statutes and to observe and fulfill My laws.  You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your ancestors, and you shall be My people and I shall be your God…" (Yechezkel/Ezekiel 36:24-28).  Here again, there is a conscious nexus suggested between the life-giving waters and the heart of stone that is transformed.  But how is that heart to be touched?



The Two Models


It seems that the Torah provides us with two possible models for transformation.  In the first model, employed at the commencement of the journey into the wilderness, the rock is struck in order to change it into water.  There is an element of force and a threat of violence that causes the rock to transform. Moshe hits the rock and, in a sense, it is coerced to provide water.  The object rock is treated as a hard and unyielding substance that must be smashed in order to force compliance.


The second model, in contrast, raises another possibility.  The rock can be coaxed to give forth water, not by intimidation and overwhelming force, but rather by words of encouragement and inspiration.  There is no directive to strike the rock as Moshe stands at Mei Meriva, addressing a generation tempered by the experience of the wilderness, but only the command to speak.  "Speak to the rock and it shall give forth its waters…."


As the people left the land of Egypt, broken by centuries of oppression and conditioned by the harsh and brutal language of slavery, they embarked on a journey that was meant to remake them into a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'  Their vocabulary at that early stage of their development did not contain profound words of spiritual sophistication, nor were their minds full of sweet visions of ethical refinement, for the dehumanized slave is taught early on to surrender any goals more exalted than self-preservation.  At that point, God's directive to transcend bestiality and to overcome insensitivity was perceived as a harsh imposition, as a form of coercion against which the scarcely-freed slaves chafed.  For them, the path to transformation, to change hearts of rock into springs of water, had to be accompanied by the blows of scarcity and deficiency, by the experience of a wilderness arid and inhospitable, by a journey across an expanse that held no promise of life-giving waters.  God commands Moshe to strike the rock to indicate to the ELDERS that their role will be to initiate the difficult process of the people's change through seemingly harsh acts and threats of punishment.  Sadly, the people, here personified by the unyielding rock, are to be objects in the process, for their gross immaturity can allow for no other approach.


But, as we all know, this method is not ideal, nor are its effects long-lasting.  Perhaps it is sometimes necessary to shock a hardened heart out of its coarse and unfeeling stupor, but it is no way to raise a person to become sensitive, compassionate or gentle.  Thus, as the experience of the wilderness draws to a close, and the new generation stands prepared to take its place in the Land, Moshe is again bidden to drive home the lesson of adamant hearts becoming thinking, feeling hearts that can beat with compassion and spirituality.  But this time, no force is to be used on the people, no assault is to be made on their indifference through blows.  That same rock, if it is sensitive and open to change, can be made to become water through words, through God's transforming message, and this approach alone carries the hope of effecting real and long lasting change.


Moshe's act of indiscretion, is characterized by the Torah as failing 'to sanctify God' in the eyes of the congregation. It is so called because rather than indicating to the people that they could change through yielding to God's word, Moshe reinforced the message that force alone can ensure compliance with God's Torah.  But, as we have seen and as we know, this approach has limited success and never produces meaningful life-long results.  Only by opening our minds to hear God's word, by being sensitive to the message of spiritual transformation that the Torah unfailingly affirms, is there the possibility of changing hearts of stone into life-giving springs of water.


Shabbat Shalom


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