Chukas: Moshe’s Mistake with the Rock

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I realize that my hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of blog readers are unable to make it to my weekly sermon about the Parsha of the week, so I humbly offer it here for your reading pleasure.

In this week’s parsha, parshas Chukas, we read about the tragic events which ultimately prevents Moshe Rabainu from entering the Promised Land. As the Torah tells us, ” Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock…But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Devastatingly, because Moshe hit the rock to obtain water for the people, instead of speaking to it, as G-d had asked, he is punished by not being able to continue leading the people into Israel, and he ultimately is given a death sentence to take place before entering the land.

The questions are abound.

A) How does the punishment of not being able to go into Israel fit the crime of hitting the rock?

B) As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks ztl asks, because of Moshe’s prayers, G-d forgave the Jewish people after the sin with the golden calf. Could his prayers not salvage forgiveness for himself for a much less severe transgression?

C) Isn’t it a bit harsh to deprive Moshe of seeing the culmination of a lifetime’s effort?

D) Previously , in Refidim, Moshe was told by G-d to take his staff and hit the rock– why is he punished now?

I want to discuss two innovative answers to these famous questions, one offered by Chief Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ztl and one by the Nesivos Shalom.

Rabbi Sacks begins answering this question by quoting a Gemara from Avodah Zara in which Reis Lakish says that G-d showed Adam HaRishon every generation and its leaders. The implication is that every generation has its own unique circumstances, and with it, a unique set of leaders suited to deal with those circumstances.

In Rabbi Sacks immortal words:

One of the most striking features of Judaism is that it is not centred on a single figure – a founder – who dominates its entire history. To the contrary, each age gave rise to its own leaders, and they were different from one another, not only in personality but in the type of leadership they exercised….Leadership is a function of time…A leader must be sensitive to the call of the hour – this hour, this generation, this chapter in the long story of a people. And because he or she is of a specific generation, even the greatest leader cannot meet the challenges of a different generation. That is not a failing. It is the existential condition of humanity...here is one critical difference between slaves and free human beings. Slaves respond to orders. Free people do not. They must be educated, informed, instructed, taught – for if not, they will not learn to take responsibility. Slaves understand that a stick is used for striking. That is how slave-masters compel obedience. Indeed that was Moses’ first encounter with his people, when he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite. But free human beings must not be struck. They respond, not to power but persuasion..Moses’ inability to hear this distinction was not a failing, still less was it a sin. It was an inescapable consequence of the fact that he was mortal. A figure capable of leading slaves to freedom is not the same as one able to lead free human beings from a nomadic existence in the wilderness to the conquest and settlement of a land. These are different challenges, and they need different types of leadership.

Rabbi Sacks answers these questions by describing that as happens inevitably in life, the time had come for Moshe to pass on the baton of leadership to Yeshoshua, representing the next generation. It would be Yeshoshua who would be more capable of serving this new generation of freed slaves, with a new identity, and new circumstances and needs. Moshe was everything the Jewish People needed for the generation who left Egypt– and it would be Yehoshua who possessed the G-d given tools to lead the people into the Land of Israel. Moshe hitting the rock instead of speaking to was indicative, according to Rabbi Sacks, that he possessed the mentality of the previous generation. That was why it was effective when Moshe hit the rock all those years ago in Refidim. But this was the dawn of a new era, and that approach no longer worked. Moshe then, is not being punished– rather time is simply continuing its inevitable march, and Moshe’s time as the leader of klal Yisroel was coming to its inevitable conclusion.

The Slonimer Rebbe, on the other hand, answers the question in a different way in his essay on this topic in Nesivos Shalom.

The bond between a leader and his community is like the connection of the body to the soul– there must be cohesion between them. The Jewish people need to believe in the ability of their leader to bring them out, and to elevate them, even from the most profound darkness; and the power of this belief of the community in its leader gives him the strength and ability to influence and inspire the people. By the same token, the leader needs to believe in the strength of his people, and know that every person is a chelek Eloka M’mail even when they sin and go astray. Because a person has this G-dly spark within them, he can also return to his roots, and do teshuva. Therefore, a leader needs to believe that it is always within his ability to inspire his people and to help them return to their roots, and even in the lowest of times, it is his duty to believe in their loftiness that is implanted within them, and that he can inspire them and elevate them. When the leader lacks this faith in his people, and he no longer thinks he can inspire them, he will no longer be able to lift them up and elevate them.. When the leader sees a blemish within the people, he can no longer inspire them….

This then, was the fatal flaw Moshe made was that he called the Jews “Morim”, or rebels. He identified THEM as rebels. He didn’t say that they acted like rebels, but he said it was inherent within them– it was who they were. Therefore, he was not fit to bring them into Israel, because he didn’t believe in their ability to do teshuva.

This, is what the pasuk meant when it said Lo He’amantem bi– ​​​​​​​because you didn’t believe in me. Moshe’s mistake was his lack of faith in Klal Yisroel and in the lack of belief in the ​​​​​​​kedusha of klal yisroel — the holiness that dwelled within them. He struggled to remember that each and every one of them possed a G-dly Divine spark, as a chelek Eloka M’Maal… Therefore it became necessary to appoint a new leader, who truly did believe in them.

What emerges from the Nesivos Shalom is that a leader must believe in his or her people. Moshe’s calling the people “rebels” reflected a basic lack of faith in them that effectively rendered him unfit to lead.

I believe there are a few practical lessons to be learned from these amazing approaches.

Firstly, as per the insight from Rabbi Sacks, leaders, whether CEOs of companies, managers, parents, or teachers, needs to fully grasp and understand the people they are leading. Each generation changes, and with it, shifts the approach in how to properly get through to the people. This generation of students, growing up with smart phones and devices, is drastically different from when I grew up, with dial-up internet. My generation, who grew up with dial-up internet, is drastically different from my parents generations, who were using type writers. Leaders must understand how the people they lead click, what their needs are, and how they can address those needs. These needs are constantly changing, and leaders must show flexibility.

Secondly, as we learn from The Nesivos Shalom, we need to remember to constantly be aware that everyone of us possess a Divine G-dly spark. Each and every one of us is truly G-dly. The next time I want to slander someone, insult them or berate them, it is my duty to search for that spark of Divinity within them, and to try to appreciate them in a different light.

Similarly, we must never, ever despair and lose hope in our friends, family members, or selves. Even when we hit the inevitably speed bumps of life, we must remember that we are G-dly, that we possess Infinite G-dliness within ourselves. Therefore, there is nothing that we cannot overcome, even as bleak as it sometimes might feel.

May we all have a beautiful Shabbos in which we take these vital timeless lessons to heart.

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