Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Chukkat 2014

Parashat Chukkat
Rabbi Alexandra Wright
27th June 2014

Parashat Chukkat represents a significant turning point in the Torah.· Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, has died; the people find themselves without water and begin to quarrel with their leader. Why have they been brought into the desert to die there?· Moses and Aaron turn towards the Tent of Meeting and God instructs them to call the community together and to order the rock to yield its water.· Moses takes his staff, addresses the people and strikes the rock twice.· The water gushes forth and the community and all their animals drink.·· But this apparently simple story turns out to be catastrophic for Moses and Aaron.· “You didn’t trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity” says God.· The punishment is clear: you shall not lead the congregation into the Promised Land.

Of course we know that Moses is not an infallible hero.· He has his flaws – lack of confidence, a bit of a temper, sometimes a desperation and paralysis when the needs and the complaints of the people are too much for him.· But he leads the Israelites with dedication, commitment, with love and with great humility.· Why is the punishment so great?· What is it that offends so enormously, that this man who has given forty years of his life to the Israelite people cannot experience the fulfilment of his own hopes and dreams?

If the punishment is clear, the crime is far from apparent.· Some commentators, Rashi and Rashbam among them argue that his offence is that he struck the rock when told to speak to it.·· Ibn Ezra follows an Aramaic early midrashic interpretation that Moses struck the rock twice instead of once.· But would this merit such a severe sentence?· Maimonides and others point to Moses character – he was prone to outbursts of temper and anger and there were other flaws that didn’t befit a leader – he was cowardly and callous.· Of the first, there is evidence, he is not always the calmest of leaders, but to label him as cowardly and callous is, I think, unfair and unsubstantiated by our texts.· But a third aspect of interpretation focuses on something else: namely, what he says, how he addresses the congregation as “rebels” and the way in which he says to them: “Shall we get water for you out of this rock?”· Isn’t there a little slip of the tongue there as he attributes the miraculous power of bringing water from the rock to himself and to Aaron, rather than God?

Suddenly, it seems as though his faith in God has slipped away, not entirely, but there is doubt, as there has been before in other moments of this forty year episode of exile.· Is this intentional or deliberate doubt in God’s powers? Does he, so to speak, deny God’s very essence?· Or is this simply a failure of nerve?

We may be surprised that earlier interpreters of the Bible come down so severely on Moses and make this loss of trust and confidence in God the real crime.· Were he to live in today’s world, his questioning and his doubt about whether God really cares for us, would not be out of place.· One thinks of the mother of a young woman killed in the July 7th bombings in 2005, and of how she stepped down from her role as a parish priest in Bristol because she found it so difficult to reconcile her mission as a priest with the terrible tragedy of what had happened to her daughter.· When the choice is between doubt and rigid fundamentalism, I hope most of us would know which path we would prefer to take.· I think it was Voltaire who said “Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.”

In the context of the world of faith today and particularly among Liberal Jews, we would, I think be much gentler, much less judgemental about Moses.· And perhaps there is yet a further explanation of this episode.· Here, after all, is a very old man who has just lost his sister, who is about to lose his brother and who, himself is coming to the end of a long life.· Is it that Moses finds it difficult to let go and that failure of nerve, that stumbling if you like that causes his stick to strike the rock, represents the sudden shakiness and realisation of old age and finitude.·Suddenly the world seems less secure, the future less certain, and the body more frail.· It is at this point that Moses must suddenly to come to terms with what inevitably is going to be the end.

It is when we lose confidence, when we are vulnerable, and uncertain about the future that we begin to doubt and to question both ourselves and God.·· But far from being a weakness or flaw in Judaism, doubt is an important part of the process of questioning, of refining the pathway towards truth and of finding a way towards God.· Doubt exists within us all the time, but the point about a Jewish way of life, is that doubt should never allow us to become morally debilitated, it should never prevent us from acting justly, from moving out into the world to practise goodness, to do what we know to be right and to seek the truth at all times.