Transitions are hard. As the period of wandering in the desert begins to draw to a close, Bnei Yisrael encounter many changes and they anticipate many more. Their leaders begin to die: Miriam and Aharon both die in this week’s parasha, and Moshe will pass away a few months hence. The people are also facing a shift in the very nature of their lives. For forty years they have been living an otherworldly existence, wandering in the wilderness, existing in a vacuum with all their needs being provided for directly by God in miraculous ways. Soon they will be living in the Land of Israel, fighting wars, planting and harvesting crops, living in a real society, and building a country. Will the people be ready for this change? What is necessary for a transition that is as smooth as possible, and what is required?
Perhaps the first thing that is needed is new leadership. Moshe and Aharon were the perfect leaders to bring the people out of Egypt, but they may not be the perfect leaders to bring them into the Land of Israel. They have led with the aid of ongoing and direct communication with God and with God’s direct intervention through miraculous acts. Now, however, the people need leaders who don’t need this option available to them, who can function without turning to God and expecting an answer. The people need leaders who can be effective when forced to work out real-world solutions for themselves, leaders who will be self-reliant and who can teach the people to be self-reliant as well.
Just as Moshe and Aharon have developed a reliance on God, the people have grown habituated to a reliance on Moshe and Aharon. This is not a healthy relationship, not for Moshe and Aharon and certainly not for the people. Consider the situation: The people have now spent forty years in the wilderness, and yet Parashat Chukat reads like a replay of their complaints as they left Egypt at the beginning of Parashat Beshalach. They lament the lack of water and food, they utter words against Moshe and God, and they ask to go back to Egypt.
Shouldn’t they know better? They presumably know by now that God is able to provide for them. They also have presumably learned that complaining only leads to bad results. And yet what do they do? They whine; they repeat the old line, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” Their request for water at least reflects legitimate need, even if they ask for it inappropriately, but the grumblings about the man is nothing but ingratitude and small-mindedness. And the divine response is predictably deadly. Really, don’t they ever learn?
The truth is that it is one thing to learn intellectually and quite another to change the dynamics of a relationship. We so often revert to old patterns and old roles, even when we know better. A person could be a mature, accomplished professional, but when she goes back to her family for Thanksgiving or Pesach, all of a sudden she is playing her old role of middle sister and interacting with her parents and her siblings just like she did when she was a teenager. A couple could have worked through a difficult relationship, learning the behaviors that set one another off and that need to be avoided, but without a lot of effort, when those old triggers are encountered they will again act in their old, counterproductive ways.
Moshe and Bnei Yisrael have been working on their relationship now for forty years, and it seems like those old patterns are not going to break. Bnei Yisrael somehow fall back into their teenage child mode when facing challenges and turn to Moshe. And Moshe falls back into his familiar mode and turns to God for an answer: “And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly unto the door of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them” (Bamidbar, 20:6).
Moshe may not be aware of how little his own behavior has changed, but he certainly sees the people as failing in this regard: “Hear ye rebels, must we fetch water for you out of this rock?” (20:11). The word for rebels, morim, is echoed in his valedictory address to the people in a way that makes explicit the sense that the people’s wayward behavior is hopeless and unchanging: “Rebels, mamrim, you have been against God, from the day that I have known you” (Devarim 9:24).
This, then, might be what the sin of Moshe and Aharon is really about, but it is all so mysterious. What was their sin? Was it hitting the rock rather than speaking to it? Was it calling the people rebels? Was it getting angry? Even if their sin is a combination of all these, do they really justify the punishment of dying in the wilderness without entering the land?
The answer might be that their sin is all of those and none, that it lays not in the acts themselves but in what they demonstrate. For each one of these things shows that Moshe is still the leader of old, and that he is unable to adapt to the changes ahead. Think of what he could have done differently: He could have engaged the people rather than running to the Tent of Meeting and calling on God to help. God even told him to break the old patterns and commanded him to speak to the rock, not to hit it, but he couldn’t do it. Instead, he fell back into what was familiar, hitting the rock rather than speaking to it.
There is a lot of symbolism in the choice of whether to speak or to hit. Does one speak, trying to engage, thinking that there can be a meaningful connection with the other side, believing that both are receptive to the change that can emerge when two sides meet in open and reflective conversation? Or does one hit, believing that no true conversation can take place and that behavior can only be modified by brute force from above? If after all this time Moshe still sees the people as incorrigible rebels who can only be beaten into submission, then it is time that Moshe step back and allow a new leader to take over.
And, lo and behold, even though Yehoshua is not selected yet, as soon as Moshe and Aharon are told that they will not take the people into the land, the people start acting in a more mature and self-reliant fashion. After Aharon’s death, Israel suffers an attack by the king of Arad. Their response? Not to turn to Moshe, but to take matters into their own hands: “And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities” (21:2).
They prayed to God, they went to battle, and they were victorious. This was no replay of the war with Amalek, another parallel to Parashat Beshalach. Here, the people were not dependent on Moshe or a miracle wrought by his hands raised to heaven. This war was won by the people themselves, by their skills in battle, their prayers, and their relationship with God.
Perhaps the event with the poisonous serpents represents a relapse, with their complaining about the man and turning to Moshe to pray to God to save them. But in the end, even with the miraculous intervention, there was something more empowering this time. Moshe didn’t save the people with his prayers, and Aharon didn’t save them with the incense. Moshe made a physical object, a serpent on a flag, which the people then used to save themselves. Each person’s healing was in his or her own hands. This healing may have been a little too miraculous for the real world they would soon be encountering, and in the end the brass serpent was destroyed by King Hizkiyahu (II Kings, 18:3). But in the wilderness, where the supernatural was taken for granted, this was how healing took place. And they did it themselves.
And so it continues. The song that they sing, “Az Yashir,” echoes the song sung by Moshe and Miriam back in Beshalach. But now it is not “az yashir Moshe,” but rather, “az yashir Yisrael” (21:17). And by the time they are encountering Sichon, it is no longer Moshe who is sending the messengers, as was the case with Edom (20:14), but rather, the people themselves: “Then Israel sent messengers to Sichon the king of the Amorites…” (21:21).
The people are learning what it means to be responsible for themselves; they are growing up. And sometimes to grow up and escape all those old behaviors and dynamics, you have to leave the parental home. Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam are left behind in the people’s childhood home, in the desert where the people were raised. The people are now ready to leave home, to become adults as they learn independence and self-reliance, and as they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead in the Land of Canaan.