Shabbat Message for Parshat Hukkat

July 11, 2019
By Beth Mordecai
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Shabbat Message for Parshat Hukkat

The Israelites find themselves without water after Miriam’s death. A Midrash tells us that a well appeared whenever the Israelites camped because of Miriam’ merit. The well’s existence ceased at Miriam’s death. The people become thirsty and start to complain…again.

The people lament: Why did you make us leave Egypt to bring us to this wretched place, a place with no grain, or figs, or grapes or pomegranates? There is not even water to drink! Numbers 20:2

Moses responds by going with his brother, Aaron into the tent of meeting to approach God. They are then told to assemble the entire community around a rock. There, they are to take a staff and order the rock to produce water. The stone will then produce enough water for all the people and their animals.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank.

But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Numbers 20:10-12

Why was language and speaking so important in this instance?

Some commentators suggest Moses was merely acting on the first part of the instructions to take his staff and forgot the rest where he is to speak to the rock. Other focus on Moses using violence rather than his voice. I think there is something more fundamental and powerful in this story than just not using brute force. It is the power of our words. In this instance, Moses only speaks to rebuke the people, calling them rebels.

His only words tear down the people, and then Moses hits on the rock. This interaction with the people is negative, although how could it deserve the harsh punishment of Moses and Aaron being kept out of the Promised Land?

David Hazony writes: Miracles brought about through words are of a separate order altogether, for words issue not so much from the material universe as from the spirit. When we speak, we translate our thoughts or designs or values into living forces. The fact that words can change and have changed the world is itself a miracle, one that we see around us every day and that stands at the heart of our imitation of God’s creation of the universe.

If Moses spoke to the rock and water erupted from it, that would be a miracle, unlike any the people had ever witnessed. They would have noticed. What if the people saw this miracle and were moved to act in more Godly ways?

The Medieval French commentator, Rashi, offers the most straightforward and best-known explanation. He says that Moses’ sin in striking the rock rather than speaking to it, as we know. “Had Moses done, as he was commanded, the people would have learned an unforgettable lesson: “Had Moses spoken to the rock, and it produced water, I (God) would have been sanctified in the sight of the whole community, the people would have said, “If a rock, which neither speaks nor hears nor is in need of sustenance, obeys the word of G-d, how much more so should we.”

According to this commentary, the people were supposed to witness God performing a miracle through Moses and Aaron speaking. They were supposed to come away from that experience not only with life-giving water but with life-giving words. They were supposed to learn that lives are saved because of words. They would have learned that sometimes, one must take a more gentle approach.

Earlier in the Torah, the people are thirsty, God tells Moses to strike a rock, he does, and the people have water. This miracle did not cause them to feel a sense of awe or faith in God. Perhaps God asks Moses to use his words because of this; God is trying something different, something more earthly, something within people’s ability. Speech.

God created the world and gave it to us, to people to work and guard it. To live in a finite world, we must learn to employ human strategies with the help of God. As our history continues after the Torah, God performs many miracles for the people, yet our world today is significantly different. We needed to learn that we too have the power to create miracles with our actions and our words.

A lesson of this episode in our relations with others, in our endeavor to draw water — holiness and value — from our fellows, is quite clear. But this lesson should also guide us in our own personal spiritual journey. In our lives, words have the power to enact miracles too. Words create partnerships and also break them down. Use your words to the fullest potential.

Create with your words, let words move you to action, the action of making our world better.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Metz

Category : Rabbi Rabbi's Journal Shabbat