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Fifteen Quick Mistakes

Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

One of the primary topics discussed in this week's parsha is an unfortunate incident that begins with a lack of water in the Jewish camp (Numbers 20:2-12). The Jewish people gather around Moses and begin to argue with him, saying, "It would have been better to perish in a different way! Why did you bring us to the desert to die by thirst? Why did you take us out of Egypt?" Moses seeks counsel from God, who tells him to take his staff and speak to a rock, which will miraculously provide water for the Jewish people. Moses takes his staff and gathers the people around the rock, as God commanded.

Then he says to the Jewish people, "Listen, you rebellious ones, shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?" He strikes the rock with his staff and water comes pouring out. God thereupon tells Moses, "Since you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me, you will not bring this nation into the Land."

Commentators propose at least 15 (!) different interpretations of Moses's mistake in this passage. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) teaches that "These and those are the words of the living God," meaning that a variety of authentic interpretations can coexist. Therefore, on some level, all 15 interpretations of Moses's error are correct. How can we understand this sudden decline on the part of Moses, our ultimate role model? How can the greatest prophet who ever lived have made so many mistakes in such a short period of time?

A passage later in the parsha (Numbers 20:23-24) may help resolve this problem. God speaks to Moses and Aaron by the border of the land of Edom, and tells them that it is time for Aaron to die. Rashi explains that we learn an important principle from the juxtaposition of these verses. The land of Edom belongs to the wicked descendants of Esav. When the Jewish people came close to this land (as the verse says, "by the border"), they were influenced by the wickedness there and their service of God became weaker. The people's weak Divine service then caused them to lose their righteous leader Aaron, whom they no longer deserved.

This idea indicates that the leaders of a given generation are only as great as the people of that generation. In one sense, our leaders lead us. In another sense, however, we lead them -- by creating and influencing their behavior. Therefore, instead of blaming our leaders for lack of leadership, it might be wiser to examine ourselves and take personal responsibility for the lack of guidance we protest. If we improve ourselves, our leaders will improve as well.

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This concept is also found elsewhere in the Torah. When the Jewish people begin worshipping the Golden Calf, Moses is atop Mount Sinai. God sees the situation and tells Moses, "Go, descend" (Exodus 32:7). The Talmud (Brachot 32a) wonders why the extra word "go" is necessary. Couldn't God have simply said, "Descend"? R' Elazar explains that God was implying to Moses, "Descend from your greatness." (The Hebrew word lech, "go," can also be read as lecha, "you.") "I only gave you greatness because of the people." Once again we see that the level of a leader is dependent on the level of the people.

This idea will finally help us resolve our initial issue. The problem with the lack of water was not that Moses made 15 simultaneous mistakes on his own. Rather, the Jewish people were guilty of all those errors, and they pulled Moses down to repeat those same mistakes! Fundamentally, Moses's behavior was a reflection of the people's spiritual level.

We can see this idea in God's response, where the word "you" is in the plural: "Since you [all] did not believe in Me to sanctify Me..." This plural form could be understood as a reference to the Jewish people, who failed to sanctify God on a daily basis and therefore no longer deserved to have Moses and Aaron bring them into the Land. Although the context of the verse makes it clear that the plural "you" refers to Moses and Aaron, the interpretation still holds, since Moses's mistake did not stem from his lack of greatness, but rather from the people's decline in spirituality.

In these confusing, chaotic, and troubling times, may we all be blessed to improve ourselves. By doing so, may we merit great and responsible leaders, showing us the way to true redemption.

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