By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
This week’s Torah portion is always very traumatic for me. First, we have the death of the great prophetess Miriam, which is described in one sentence, “…and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation…”(Numbers 20:1-2) Later in the same chapter we experience the death of Aaron, “…and Aaron died there in the top of the mount…and when all the congregations saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.” (20:28-29)
But, the most difficult part of this Torah portion for me to understand is that, in this same chapter, G-d tells Moses that he will not live to bring the people Israel into the Promised Land. After Miriam’s death, the people complain that there is no water to drink – the well has dried up. So, G-d tells Moses “Take the rod, …and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; ….And Moses lifted up his hand and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly…. And the Lord said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘because ye believed not in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’”(20:8-12)
Why should Moses be denied entrance into the land of Israel because he struck the rock, instead of speaking to the rock? Most times I see Hashem as a compassionate being, but at other times, I see G-d as someone who has no patience for the greatest of all the prophets.
Why is my favorite prophet Moses, “our teacher,” lifted up on G-d’s highest mountain (Numbers 12), yet when Moses asks Hashem to transform him into a bird so that he can fly over Israel, or into a soldier just so he can allow his boots to feel the mud of Jerusalem, why does G-d say “no.” This is the same G-d, whom King David describes in Psalm 145 as, “slow to anger and of great mercy.”
Imagine being so close to your goal—having led the Jewish people through the desert for 40 years, only to be told that you will not be allowed to cross the finish line, into the Promised Land. When Moses strikes the rock, he has just suffered the loss of his sister Miriam. Is he not allowed to feel grief? Is he not allowed to sit shiva for his sister? Is he not allowed to misunderstand G-d’s direction? Why does G-d have no patience for his circumstances?
These are the questions I wrestle with every time I read this Torah portion. And every year, as I study this, I feel frustration for the fate of Moses. But, perhaps it is because Moses is such a great leader that he has to die outside the Promised Land. Now, it is up to the rest of the “team,” led by Joshua, to enter Israel. G-d and Moses both know that it is time for the people to accept responsibility for themselves. They are no longer slaves, following directions – but they are free men and women, who will have to build this new land, which has been promised to them. It is time for the next generation to take charge.
I find solace in knowing that, while Moses is not allowed into Israel, he goes to a much better place – he is drawn next to the bosom of the Lord. The death of Moses, a true tzaddik, is a terribly sad time, but, it is also a time of rebirth, an illumination of life. When a child is born in this world, she departs from the world of souls. When a tzaddik dies, he undergoes the reverse – he departs from this world and returns to the other world. And, perhaps the actions that happen in this week’s Torah portion, have to happen, so that the next generation is empowered to assume new leadership roles, with Joshua at the helm.
The Midrash frequently mentions that the death of a tzaddik atones for the sins of a generation and of the whole world (Exodus Rabba 35:4), because the greater the individual who is taken from the world, the more significant the changes generated by the transition are. Hence, when Moses leaves this world, the void that is created changes the nature of the world forever. Perhaps Moses has to die, so that this new generation can get a clean slate.
Moses will always be remembered not as an angel, but as a man of flesh and blood who G-d remembered, not as the Messiah, but as a man, who loved the Lord with all his heart and soul and might. And yet, he was not afraid to challenge the greatness of G-d when he felt he had to .This is what made Moses great.
Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.