Originally Published June 2015
Transitions are hard. As the wandering in the desert begins to draw to a close, Bnei Yisrael encounter many changes and anticipate many more. Their leaders begin to die: Miriam and Aharon this week and Moshe a few months later. The people also face a shift in the nature of their lives. For forty years, their needs have been provided in miraculous ways by God. Soon they live in the Land of Israel, fighting wars, planting and harvesting crops, and living in a real society. Will they be ready for this change?
Perhaps the first thing needed is new leadership. Moshe and Aharon were perfect leaders to bring the people out of Egypt, but they may not be the perfect leaders to bring them into Israel. They have led with ongoing and direct communication with God and direct intervention through miraculous acts. Now, however, they need leaders who don’t have this available, who can lead without turning to God and expecting answers. The people need leaders who can be effective when forced to work out real-world solutions for themselves, who will be self-reliant and can teach the people to be self-reliant as well.
Just as Moshe and Aharon developed a reliance on God, the people grew to rely on Moshe and Aharon. This is not healthy for either side. The people spent forty years in the wilderness, yet Chukat reads like a replay of the complaints leaving Egypt in Beshalach. They lament the lack of water and food, utter words against Moshe and God, and ask to return to Egypt.
Shouldn’t they know better? By now they should have learned complaining never works and that God will provide for them. Yet what do they do? They whine and repeat the line, “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” Their request for water at least is a legitimate need, even if they ask inappropriately, but grumbling about the man is nothing but ingratitude and small-mindedness. The divine response is predictably deadly. Don’t they ever learn?
The truth is that it is one thing to learn intellectually and another to change dynamics of a relationship. We often revert to old patterns and roles, even when we know better. A person could be an accomplished, mature professional, but when she goes back to her family for Thanksgiving or Pesach, she returns to her old role of middle sister and interacts with parents and siblings just like when she was a teenager.
Moshe and Bnei Yisrael have been working on their relationship for forty years, and it seems those old patterns are not going to break. Bnei Yisrael fall back into child mode when facing challenges, turning to Moshe. And Moshe falls back into his familiar mode and turns to God: “And Moshe and Aharon went from the presence of the assembly to the door of the Tent of Meeting, and they fell upon their faces: and the glory of the Lord appeared unto them” (Numb. 20:6).
Moshe may not be aware of how little his behavior has changed, but he certainly sees the people as failing: “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).
What was the sin of Moshe and Aharon about? Hitting the rock rather than speaking to it? Calling the people rebels? Getting angry? Even if it is a combination, does it really justify the punishment?
The answer might be the sin is all and none, it is not the acts but what they demonstrate. Each shows Moshe is still the leader of old and unable to adapt to the changes ahead. He could have done things differently: he could have engaged the people rather than calling on God. God even told him to break old patterns and commanded him to speak, not hit the rock, but he couldn’t do it. Instead, he fell back into the familiar, hitting rather than speaking.
There is a lot of symbolism in the choice to speak or hit. Does one speak, trying to engage, thinking there can be a meaningful connection with the other side and both are receptive to the change that can emerge when two sides meet in open and reflective conversation? Or does one hit, believing no true conversation can take place and behavior can only be modified by brute force? If Moshe still sees the people as incorrigible rebels who can only be beaten into submission after all this time, then it is time he step back and allow a new leader to take over.
Once Moshe and Aharon are told they will not take the people into the land, the people start acting more mature and self-reliant. When Israel suffers an attack by the king of Arad, their response is not to turn to Moshe, but 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, battled, and won. This was no replay of the war with Amalek. The people were not dependent on Moshe or a miracle. This war was won by the people, skill in battle, prayers, and relationship with God
When the people complain about the man and turn to Moshe to save them from the poisonous serpents, there may be a relapse. But even with miraculous intervention, it was more empowering. Moshe made a physical object, a serpent on a flag, which they used to save themselves. This may have been too miraculous for the real world, as the serpent would be destroyed(II Kings, 18:3). But in the midbar, where miracles were taken for granted, this was how healing took place. But now they did it themselves.
The song they sing, “Az Yashir,” echoes the song sung by Moshe and Miriam in Beshalach. But it is not “az yashir Moshe,” but “az yashir Yisrael” (21:17). When they encounter Sichon, Moshe is not sending messengers, as the case with Edom (20:14), but the people themselves: “Then Israel sent messengers to Sichon the king of the Amorites…” (21:21).
The people are learning to be responsible; they are growing up. Sometimes to grow up and escape old behaviors and dynamics, you have to leave the parental home. Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam are left behind in the people’s childhood home, the desert where the people were raised. As they prepare for the challenges that lie ahead in the Land of Canaan, the people are ready to leave home and become adults as they learn independence and self-reliance.