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To Truly Believe

Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

After the death of Miriam a crisis developed in the camp; there was no water to drink:

Then the People of Israel, the whole congregation, came into the desert of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation; and they gathered themselves together against Moshe and against Aharon. And the people quarreled with Moshe, and spoke, saying, "And would that we had died when our brothers died before God! And why have you brought up the congregation of God into this wilderness, that we and our cattle should die there? And why have you made us come out of Egypt, to bring us in to this evil place? This is no place of seed, or of figs, or of vines, or of pomegranates; nor is there any water to drink." (Bamidbar 20:1-5)

Rabbinic tradition connects the death of Miriam with the sudden lack of water in the camp: The miraculous well that followed them in the desert and supplied their needs was in the merit of Miriam; with her death, the water ceased.

And the well was due to the merit of Miriam. For what does Scripture say? And Miriam died there, and was buried there (Bamidbar 20:1). And what is written after that? And there was no water for the congregation (Bamidbar 20:2). (Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 1:2)

The water shortage served as the impetus for yet another confrontation between the Jewish People and Moshe. Their litany of complaints had by this point become a familiar chorus. Over the years, they had demanded meat as well as water, complained about the Manna, complained about leaving Egypt, complained about being in the desert, even complained about the Land of Israel. Unfortunately, this latest complaint does not surprise us. Yet in all previous episodes, their complaints were answered in one of two ways: either their wishes were fulfilled, or the People were punished. In this new incident, a third outcome is introduced: Moshe and Aharon are severely punished.

And Moshe and Aharon gathered the congregation together before the rock, and he said to them, Hear now, you rebels; must we fetch you water out of this rock? And Moshe lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice; and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their beasts also. And God said to Moshe and Aharon, Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me before the eyes of the People of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them. This is the water of Merivah, because the People of Israel strove with God, and He was sanctified in them. (Bamidbar 20:10-13)

Moshe cannot lead these people into the Land of Israel because of a lack of faith in God; Rashi stresses that had it not been for this sin Moshe would have entered the Land. On its own, Rashi's comment here would have been somewhat perplexing: Rashi goes to great lengths to stress that this particular sin, and no other, is the cause of Moshe's ultimate exile. Had he not hit the rock, Moshe would have entered the Land of Israel. In Rashi's view, the Torah includes the rationale for Moshe's punishment in order to forestall any conjecture that Moshe was guilty of the same sin as the rest of his generation - the sin of the spies.1

The Midrash seems to address this same problem from a slightly different perspective: It is Moshe himself who asks that the nature of his sin be spelled out in the text, recorded for all posterity.

So Moshe said before God: ' Let my actual sin be written down for future generations that Israel may not say, "Moshe falsified something in the Torah." or, "he spoke something which he had not been commanded"; and they shall know that it was merely because of the water [that I was punished].' This is the force of the words, AT THAT TIME, SAYING. (Midrash Rabba Dvarim 2:6)

Moshe chose transparency and accurate reporting over revisionism. He feared that cynical readers in future generations might suspect that the Torah is less than accurate, a whitewashed account penned by his own hand and not the Hand of God. He hoped to leave no room for suspicions that he had corrupted the Torah itself, embellished or edited the Word of God; he wanted the record to reflect that his only sin was in the matter of the Waters of Meriva, the "Waters of Strife."

Ironically, despite this plea, the precise nature of Moshe's sin is a question that has been answered in various ways, a topic that has become confused and confusing. On the one hand, there are abundant explications of the "Waters of Strife" incident, each proposing different motivations or understandings of Moshe's sin.2 On the other hand, despite the unequivocal statement by God Himself in these very verses attributing this incident as the cause of Moshe's punishment, other sources point to different episodes in Moshe's life to explain the seemingly harsh decree.

The Mechilta of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai, a very ancient source, cites a much earlier episode in Moshe's life as the cause of Moshe's banishment: As the Jewish People languished in slavery, God appeared to Moshe and tasked him with leading the people to freedom; Moshe demurred. Only after being asked numerous times, Moshe half-heartedly acquiesced:

And he said, O my Lord, send, I beseech you, by the hand of him whom you will send. (Shmot 4:13)

It was this belated, halfhearted response that caused God to foreswear Moshe's entry to the Land.3 While it seems difficult to reconcile this opinion with the explanation given by God regarding the "Waters of Strife," this commentary is not unique in its apparent contradiction of the text. In fact, Rashi himself offers an alternative motivation in comments on an earlier episode, contradicting both the text of our present parsha and his own comments on that text! The incident in question is Moshe's dialogue with God in Egypt: Moshe delivers God's message to Pharoh, but the situation seems to worsen rather than improve. Moshe then questions God:

And Moshe returned to God, and said, Lord, why have You done evil to this People? Why have You sent me? For since I came to Pharoh to speak in Your Name, he has done evil to this People; neither have You saved Your People at all. And God said to Moshe, Now shall you see what I will do to Pharoh; for with a strong hand shall he let them go, and with a strong hand shall he drive them out of his land. (Shmot 5:22-23 6:1)

Rashi comments on the words "now you shall see," implying that Moshe will see the fall of Pharoh, but will not live to see the fall of the kings who occupy Israel.4 The implication is that Moshe's fate had already been sealed in Egypt, long before the Exodus, long before the incident at Meriva. This seems to contradict Rashi's own commentary on our current parsha, discussed above: Was Moshe punished for striking the rock, or for his complaints about the progress of liberation from Egypt, some 39 years earlier?

Among those who offer alternative reasons for Moshe's punishment is Moshe himself! While recounting the events of the sin of the spies, Moshe says:

And God heard the sound of your words, and was angry, and swore, saying, surely not one of the men of this evil generation shall see that good land, which I swore to give to your fathers. Save Caleb the son of Yefuneh; he shall see it, and to him will I give the land that he has trodden upon, and to his children, because he has wholly followed God. Also God was angry with me on your account, saying, You also shall not go there. (Dvarim 1:34-37)

Not only does Moshe recount his own punishment within the context of the punishment of the spies, he blames the People for his harsh sentence. This was the very conclusion that Rashi wished to avoid, yet Moshe seems quite clear in associating his own exclusion from Israel with the sin of the spies and the People's reaction to it. This same association is echoed at a later juncture, when Moshe prays for the punishment to be rescinded. When his prayers are rebuffed, he once again points an accusing finger.

And I pleaded with God at that time, saying, Almighty God, you have begun to show Your servant Your greatness, and Your mighty hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth, that can achieve Your works and Your might? I beg You, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly mountain region, and the Levanon.But God was angry with me for your sakes, and would not hear me; and God said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to Me of this matter. Get up to the top of Pisgah, and lift up your eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with your eyes; for you shall not go over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage him, and strengthen him; for he shall go over before this people, and he shall cause them to inherit the land which you shall see. So we remained in the valley opposite Beth-Peor. (Dvarim 3:23-29)

A careful reading shows that Moshe isn't blaming them as much as saying that he must stay on the other side of the Jordan for their sake. The Midrash notices this nuance and explains:

FOR YOU SHALL NOT GO OVER THIS JORDAN (Dvarim 3:27). God said to Moshe: 'If you are buried here, near those [who died in the wilderness], then they will enter the land for your sake [at the time of Resurrection]...' Similarly, God said to Moshe: 'Should you be buried near those who died in the wilderness, they will enter the land for your sake, and you will be at their head, as it is said, 'And he chose a first part for himself, for there a portion of a ruler was reserved; and there came the heads of the people (Devarim 33:21). (Midrash Rabba Dvarim, 2:9)

Moshe is not the only one to provide a retrospective of his crime and punishment. When the time for Moshe to die arrives, God speaks:

And God spoke to Moshe that same day, saying, 49. Go up to this Mountain Avarim, to Mount Nevo, which is in the land of Moav, that is opposite Yericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give to the People of Israel for a possession; 50. And die in the mount where you go up, and be gathered to your people; as Aharon your brother died in Mount Hor, and was gathered to his people; 51. Because you trespassed against me among the People of Israel at the waters of Merivat-Kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin; because you did not sanctify me in the midst of the People of Israel. 52. Yet you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go there to the land which I give the people of Israel. (Dvarim 32:48-52)

Here the reader is offered a unique perspective. God Himself speaks, and explains why the narrative unfolds as it does: Moshe will die in exile due to the sin at the "Waters of Strife". How can there be any further discussion, any alternative interpretation? Twice God speaks in the Torah about the death of Moshe, and in both instances it is related to the "Waters of Strife"; all other commentary is nullified, pointless - even presumptuous.

Our assumption must be that Moshe and the later commentaries knew full well what crime God Himself associated with this punishment; the verses of the Torah were as at least as familiar them as to they are to us. Surely, then, our task is to find the relationship between the various perspectives on Moshe's punishment, the common denominator between each explanation of Moshe's crime. Only such a common thread can explain why more than one interpretation - God's interpretation - exists.

In describing Moshe's sin here in Parshat Chukat, God raises two distinct objections: "ma'altem bi - you trespassed against Me", and "you did not sanctify Me". The language in the Book of Devarim used to describe the same sin is different: "Because you did not believe in me to sanctify me in the eyes of the People of Israel". Both verses speak of a missed opportunity to sanctify God's Name, but it is the charge that Moshe did not believe in God which is particularly frightening. If Moshe, who stood alone with God on Mount Sinai, who spoke to God "face to face", whom God Himself described as the most loyal to Him of any of His servants, doesn't "believe" in God, what chance do the rest of us have of achieving "belief"? How can the entire nation possibly believe if even Moshe was found lacking? Perhaps this problem may relate to a different incident regarding Moshe's faith: When Moshe was first told of the mission that God intended for him, Moshe questioned the belief of the entire nation. Moshe tries to avoid his own destiny; he stalls, he declines the appointment to the role of savior of the Jews - and he expresses reservations about the ability of the slaves to believe.

And Moshe answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor listen to my voice; for they will say, God has not appeared to you. (Shmot 4:1)

Apparently Moshe thought that these people, who had been abused and enslaved, had lost hope. He assumed that they had lost faith in their own redemption, in the possibility that a redeemer was sent by God. Moshe underestimated the People of Israel. This was the reason he was less than enthusiastic about accepting the position of redeemer; he feared that the mission was doomed to failure because the people had lost faith. Not only was Moshe questioning the people, he was questioning the educational and spiritual accomplishments of their forefathers. The doubts he had about their continued commitment to the Covenant implied that Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov Rachel and Leah had failed, as parents and grandparents, to instill their own belief in their children and grandchildren -- belief that could withstand exile and slavery, that could transcend geographic distance from the Holy Land, belief that would allow them to enthusiastically accept the redeemer when he finally arrived.5

The Talmud says that God defended the People against Moshe's accusation:

Resh Lakish said: He who entertains a suspicion against innocent men is bodily afflicted, for it is written, [And Moshe . . . said,] But they will not believe me; but it was known to the Holy One, Blessed be He, that Israel would believe. Said He to him: They are believers, [and] the descendants of believers, whereas you will ultimately disbelieve. They are believers, as it is written, "and the people believed"; the descendants of believers: "and he [Avraham] believed in God." You will ultimately disbelieve, as it is said, "[And God said unto Moshe and Aharon,] Because you did not believe in me.6 Talmud Bavli Shabbat 97a)

Moshe casts aspersions on the faith of the Jewish People, but he does not stop there.

Why have you sent me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people; neither have you saved your people at all. And God said to Moshe, Now shall you see what I will do to Pharaoh.

By this point, Moshe has reluctantly accepted the task; he begins to work toward redeeming the Jewish People, but there are setbacks. Moshe questions God, questions the mission on which he has been sent, and questions his own place in the larger picture. Moshe was faced with his first real setback, and once again he suspects that the people will lose faith. If before his mission began he thought the people had no faith, he reverted to this same mindset; now he fears that due to the reversal of fortune the people again would not continue to believe. Rashi notes the 'superfluous" word 'now': Moshe would see victory over Pharoh, but he would not see the ultimate, future victory in the Land of Israel.

Much later, in the Book of Devarim, Moshe explains that his own death is part and parcel of the generation of the spies: "Also God was angry with me for your sakes (biglalchem), saying, 'You also shall not go there'." (Dvarim 1:34). Was this, or was this not, the reason Moshe was punished? In fact, the answer is - yes and no. The sin of the spies might not have had anything to do with Moshe's death, were it not actually one and the same as his earlier sin: breach of faith. The sin of the spies caused the People of Israel to lose faith in their destiny. It caused a setback on the route of their march to the Promised Land, a reversal of the process of redemption - not unlike the manner in which Pharoh's defiance of Moshe's message increased the slaves' burden. The path to redemption seemed longer, the fulfillment of the dream eluded their grasp just when it was in sight.

When Moshe relates his punishment to the sin of the spies, he is, in fact, taking a longer view of the circumstances: Had the spies not led the people astray, his own sin would not have taken on such weight. Had the route to the Promised Land not become so long and circuitous as a result of the sin of the spies, the People would have entered the Land of Israel without ever having stopped at Meriva; Miriam would not have died on the 40-year trek that never was, and the water source would never have run dry. There would have been no sin at the rock of Merivat-Kadesh. Had the People of Israel never been infected by the spies' faith-shaking report, Moshe's own breach of faith would have seemed an isolated, forgivable lapse. Only when this malady of faith is seen to have spread through the nation, Moshe's sin is seen as part of a far more widespread phenomenon, a defining spiritual flaw of the entire generation that perished in the desert. A careful reading of the verses in Devarim reveals this very claim in Moshe's interpretation of his punishment: "But God was angry with me (lma'anchem) for your sakes, and would not hear me; and God said to me, Let it suffice you; speak no more to me of this matter."

Moshe's proper place of rest was in exile, with the generation he led out of Egypt, with the people he had personally committed to leading to the Promised Land. If they weren't going, neither could he. Only at the End of Days will he finally lead them to the Promised Land.7

The idea of emuna - belief - may be related to Moshe's sin and his punishment in more ways than we had realized. The Netziv's comments on our parsha highlight one very important aspect of Moshe's sin that we might otherwise have overlooked: In general, the Netziv understands the main theme of the Book of Bamidbar as being the shift from supernatural existence to natural existence: God's relationship with the Jewish People, from the moment Moshe appeared before Pharoh, through the period of the plagues, the Redemption, the splitting of the sea, and throughout their sojourn in the desert, was supernatural. God's involvement in Jewish history was direct, explicit, unmistakable; the People of Israel were sustained by miraculous means. As they approached their final destination, the relationship with God would necessarily change: the people were being prepared for life in their own land, a life of natural existence.8 The Netziv sees Moshe's sin in this larger context. Moshe's leadership up to this point had also been supernatural. He was the agent of God's direct involvement in the day -to- day existence of the nation. At the point that their supernatural water source was no longer available, the Jewish People stood to learn a vital lesson, and it was Moshe who was meant to teach it to them. It was time to make the shift to a more natural way of life, to a more permanent method of fulfilling their human needs. The Jewish People were meant to learn how they should behave in a situation of distress, in a crisis that threatened their physical existence. Their supernatural water source would not accompany them into the Promised Land; how, then, were they to proceed into this new era?

The instructions Moshe received were very specific: Take the staff with which all of the miracles were performed, but do not use it. Do not resort to the supernatural. Begin to teach the People the power of speech - the power of prayer. Teach them that as individuals and as a nation, they have the ability to have a "natural" relationship with God, through prayer. Moshe was instructed not to hit the rock, but rather to teach the people to pray, as the farmers would one day when they enter the Land and are faced with drought.

It is in this context that the Netziv explains the use of the word me'ila "trespass" (Dvarim 32:51) in God's description of the sin: The purpose of the episode was to teach the people to pray, to instill within their hearts more emuna (faith) in God in times of need. Instead, Moshe "misappropriated" the miracle, and gave the impression that it was his own stature as a prophet which brought the desired results. Rather than wean them off their dependence on supernatural sustenance, hitting the rock reinforced the people's dependence on Moshe and the miracles he facilitated. He misappropriated the emuna of the nation.

The opportunity that Moshe missed was no trifling matter; the lesson that Moshe was meant to teach is one of the most basic tenets of Judaism, and one of the most critical tools for life in the Land of Israel. As an agricultural society, the nation will need belief, above all else. Indeed, the Jewish view of the symbiotic relationship of the Children of Israel and the Land of Israel is this very fine line of emuna: the line between natural existence as a farming society on its land - and faith in the supernatural, in God's involvement in our history. It is the belief of the farmer that the tremendous investment of time and toil will bring results, but that the results of this physical, natural labor are dependent on God's "investment" in the process. In this sense, agriculture is a wonderful metaphor for all of Judaism; as the Talmud teaches, agriculture is related to faith.9 We work as hard as we can - yet still recognize the need to lift our ours heavenward and pray for rain. This was the lesson that was to have been taught at Meriva. This was the lesson Moshe did not teach when, instead of "speaking" to the rock, lifting his voice in a prayer for physical sustenance, he reverted to the "desert mentality" and struck with his staff, bringing one more miracle like all the others the nation had seen in the desert.

The Land of Israel is hardwired for belief; it is a land which requires its inhabitants to look heavenward. Unlike Egypt, Israel has no overflowing rivers to sustain life. All of its water, its life-source, comes from above.

For the land, which you enter to possess, is not as the land of Egypt, from where you came out, where you sowed your seed, and watered it with your foot, as a garden of vegetables; 11. But the land, which you are going over to possess, is a land of hills and valleys, and drinks water from the rain of the skies; 12. A land which God your God cares for; the eyes of God your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. Dvarim (11:10-12)

The Land of Israel is therefore the perfect partner for the People of Israel who are also "hardwired" for belief. As the Sfat Emet teaches, the Forefathers were successful in instilling faith. If we look at a fellow Jew and the faith is not evident, if they seem distant from belief and far from tradition, we must not be quick to judge, for the Forefathers transmitted something so durable and powerful that belief in God is deep inside the soul of every Jew. In the words of the Sfat Emet, "just as the ways of God are often beyond man's comprehension, the way of the Jewish soul is often impenetrable to the casual observer." 10

In Judaism, belief in God is axiomatic. The Rambam insists that belief in the Jewish People is equally axiomatic. Though these two foundations of Judaism may be obscured by the tribulations of human history, they will ultimately be revealed in their full force in the Messianic Age. Indeed, the clear and unmistakable affirmation of these parallel foundations of Judaism is the very definition of the Messianic Age: The Messianic redemption is defined as a period in which God's involvement in our personal and collective lives becomes clear, unmistakable, immediately obvious to each and every one of us. The process of this future redemption, the ultimate redemption, is actuated by the return to emuna: Jews will return to God, will find the belief which is all too often hidden deep within.

Moshe's sin was the failure to establish the ongoing dialogue of faith between the People and God. The irony is so sharp, the tragedy so human: Moshe had suspected that the People of Israel lacked emuna; he had cast a shadow of doubt on the founding Mothers' and Fathers' success in instilling emuna in the following generations. Now it was Moshe's turn to teach emuna - and he missed the opportunity. Years earlier, when Moshe questioned Jewish belief, he questioned the efficacy of the tradition of belief passed on from the Forefathers. When he hit the rock instead of speaking to it, he forfeited his role as the conduit of this belief to the next generation. In both instances, the sin is the same: When Moshe saw the redemptive process stall, or regress, he didn't think the people could continue. He didn't think they had enough faith. When the sin of the spies overshadowed their faith, Moshe again thought that they didn't have the faith to continue.

God disagreed. God believes in the Jewish People. He knew that we could enter the Land, that we would have the emuna to lift our hearts and voices heavenward, to remember that God is involved in our lives through the natural processes of history - and to pray. And when we do, God will answer. For our part, we must not lose sight of the faith that is our legacy, our very identity: faith in God, and faith in His People.



1. See Rashi Bamidbar 20:12.

2. See comments of the Ohr Hachaim who lists ten different opinions regarding Moshe's sin.

3. Mechilta of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai 3:8.

4. See Rashi Shmot 6:1.

5. See comments of the Chatam Sofer Talmud Bavli 97a.

6. Rav Zadok in Ohr Zarua Lazadik section 7, asserts that this Moshe's negativity was due to the influence of his adoptive mother Bitya, and his father-in-law, Yitro.

7. Chizkuni Dvarim 3:26.

8. See introduction of Netziv to Bamidbar.

9. See Tamud Bavli Shabbat 31a: Resh Lakish said, What is meant by the verse, "and there shall be faith in thy times, strength, salvation, wisdom and knowledge?" Faith refers to the Order of Seeds.

10. Sfat Emet Vaera 5663.



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