Look around and sing
Hukat - Numbers 19:1-22:1
After all he’d done,
punishing Moses like that
seems over the top.
- Ron Kaplan
June 27, 2012
In parshat Hukat we learn that after the death of Miriam, the people had no water. The Torah says:
“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.’ Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 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?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. 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.’”
What sin did Moses and Aaron commit that was so severe that it outweighed 40 years of faithful service? For centuries, commentators have tried to understand the brothers’ sin and explain God’s reaction. Most of their explanations fall into one of three categories.
The first is that God told Moses to speak to the rock, but Moses struck it instead. Rashi says if Moses had produced water by speaking to the rock, the people would have said, “If this rock, which does not speak and does not hear and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, then how much more so should we do so.”
But was Moses’ action unreasonable? When the people came to Refidim soon after crossing the sea, there was no water to drink. God told Moses, “Take along the rod with which you struck the Nile and set out…. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” Here, too, God told Moses to take the rod with him — certainly Moses could be forgiven for striking the rock rather than speaking to it.
Another explanation points to Moses’ anger when he calls the people “you rebels.” After all, the lack of water was a real and serious problem, not just a pretext for whining. But if Moses was punished because he lost his temper, why was Aaron also punished?
The third explanation focuses on Moses’ words — “shall we get water for you?” — implying that it was their power, rather than God’s, that produced the miracle.
In his commentary, Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain) discusses the many explanations and cites one more: “Others have said, because they did not sing a song, like ‘Spring up, O well, sing to it.’”
Toward the end of the parsha, we learn that God again told Moses to assemble the people so that He could give them water — and the people responded with song. But here, at the waters of Meribah, there was no song. God provided water from the rock — enough for hundreds of thousands of people and their animals — but there is no reaction, no exclamations or shouts of joy. Moses and Aaron did not lead the people in songs of praise to God; they witnessed a great miracle — and took it for granted, showing no amazement, no awe. And so they failed to affirm God’s sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.
In the paragraph of the daily Amida that begins “Modim anachnu lach,” “We thank You,” we refer to “nisecha she’b’chol yom imanu,” “Your miracles that are with us every day.” We’re not talking about special effects — no water from the rock, pillars of fire, or burning bushes. We acknowledge everyday miracles — a child’s laughter, a perfect rose, a starry sky, a powerful thunderstorm.
Religious people and secular people see the same things and experience the same events. What separates them is how those sights and experiences are interpreted. The secular person looks at the world and sees nothing unusual; the religious person looks at the same scene and thinks, “Wow! How extraordinary, how miraculous!”
Maybe Moses and Aaron were punished because they saw the water pouring from the rock and said nothing. Perhaps they even yawned or shrugged, “Been there, done that.” The Torah teaches — look around you, and sing!
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of Teaneck, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.