Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Chukat
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

R. Avraham Ben David

Parshat Chukat

Living with "Contradictions" What Did He Do Wrong? One Approach An "Exilic" Leadership Style


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Living with "Contradictions"
What Did He Do Wrong?
One Approach
An "Exilic" Leadership Style

Living with "Contradictions"
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba) in this week's Torah portion cites several examples of something impure stemming from another thing that is pure. For example, our sages note that when those involved in preparing the Red Heifer contact clothing, they make the clothing impure. But the Heifer itself, when its ashes are sprinkled on a person, makes the clothing of that person pure!

Such midrashim superficially seem to contradict logic. Common sense dictates that something pure will generate another pure entity, while that which is impure will produce another entity that is impure. Our sages note, however, that occasionally, something pure may indeed derive from another entity which is impure. Logic dictates that a person who has Tzara'at ("leprosy") all over his body, would be more impure than a person who only experiences a "baheret" (sore) on only part of his body. Nevertheless, the Torah asserts that someone who is completely covered by a "baheret" is pure, while someone who only has such a sore the size of a mustard seed, is, in fact, impure.

The deeper explanation for this kind of unusual halachic phenomenon is rooted in a recognition on the part of man that the world is one united, organic reality. Since everything derives from one source, God, even that which seems superficially "bad" is part of a Divine plan; it, too, possesses a nucleus of "light" by virtue of which it exists. In certain unique situations, this small speck of "light" nestled within the impurity can produce something else overtly good, such that good derives from bad, impure from pure.

This perspective may help explain how, in this week's Torah portion - the snake, which God uses to smite Israel, is the very same animal which heals those bitten by it. The snake has both the capacity to kill and to give life.

One should, however, be cautious not to blur the boundaries between Holy and Profane, the pure and the impure; in fact, we are clearly bidden by the Torah to make a distinction between these concepts and realities. The fact that all of existence is part of one organic Divinely-interconnected reality does not exempt us from choosing what we know to be the proper, moral path.

What Did He Do Wrong?
Later in our Torah portion, we encounter the story of "Mei Meriva" - or "The Waters of Contention." The nation is thirsty for water, and God commands Moshe to take his staff and draw water from a rock. Moshe turns to the nation, saying, "Listen now you rebels, will we draw water for you from this rock?" He then hits the rock twice, and water flows.

Despite Moshe's apparently having followed God’s commandment, he is harshly reproved; God tells Moshe that he and Aharon did not believe in Him sufficiently to sanctify His name before the Children of Israel. The punishment? Moshe will not enter the Land of Israel. Question: What was Moshe's sin and why was he punished so severely?

One Approach
The Maharal explains that Moshe's key mistake was the manner in which he spoke to the nation. ("Listen now, you rebels") The Hebrew term "Morim" has several possible meanings; one is, as we have explained, "rebels." Another explanation is that it comes from the Hebrew word, "Hora'ah", or teaching. In other words, Moshe said to them: "You people are teaching your teachers what to do."

Moshe Rabeinu was angry with the Jews, and it was from the midst of this angry state of mind that he carried out God's instructions. Maharal explains that Moshe "Departed from the path of true belief because he acted out of anger, and one who performs God’s mitzvot in this manner, is showing a lack of proper faith; true faith entails trusting in Hashem, may He be Blessed. Such an approach is manifest by one acting out of joy and trust. And don't say that his anger was localized, directed only at Israel. With 'Emuna' - proper belief - a person radiates 'simcha' (joy) to all."

While in Midian, Moshe was asked to return to Egypt and to tell the Children of Israel of the impending Geula (redemption). Moshe hesitates, starts to doubt his abilities and also the likelihood that the Jews would believe his news: "They will not listen to me or hearken to my voice," he laments in his conversation with Hashem. "They'll say that God did not appear to you."

At first glance, it seems that Moshe's hesitation was prompted by pure motives; he spoke to God with the honor of Heaven in mind. Moshe wished the Geula to be clear, definitive and absolute - an indisputable fact. He did not want anybody to challenge his authority, to ask, "Who are you, anyway?" or "Redemption - Now?" Despite Moshe’s refusal, God commands him to approach the Jews, to bring them the news of the redemption. No questions are to be asked in response to God's commands.

But in the story of the "Waters of Contention", says the Maharal, a flaw surfaces within Moshe himself. God says (regarding Moshe and Aharon) "You didn't believe in Me." It now appears that there were, all along, flaws in Moshe's personality!

Moshe Rabeinu, as a leader, as someone responsible to educate the nation, to guide it towards a firm belief in Hashem, was himself expected to reach a high level of personal belief in God. The perfected person, certain in his ways, is firm and confident in the righteousness of his approach. Such a person is therefore not self-conscious; he knows that his views in the end will prove triumphant. Such a person doesn't get angry at others.

Man should strive to perfect himself, and through this perfection, to impact on others, as well. One should not blame others, but first and foremost check oneself, and ask: "Did I do everything I could to ensure that my fellow Jew was positively influenced by me?"

An "Exilic" Leadership Style
There are others who maintain that Moshe's main transgression lay in his having hit the rock. God commanded him to speak to the rock and Moshe hit it instead. What is the distinction between hitting and speaking? Why is switching speaking for hitting such a serious departure from the Divine mandate?

A possible answer may lie in the difference between an action performed out of stress and one that derives from persuasion. When one acts under pressure, the action is certainly done - at the end of the day - but the one who performs the action is a "stranger" to his own behavior! When, however, the action is done as a result of persuasion, the performer of the action willingly acts; he is no stranger to his actions, but rather identifies with them. Had Moshe spoken to the rock and successfully prompted water to flow from it, this would have been a great lesson to the Jewish people: they would have learned that it is possible to perform God's mitzvot out of one’s free will to do so, and not out of force or fear of punishment. As a result, the Children of Israel would have been drawn to serve God on a higher spiritual level.

But Moshe chose instead to hit the rock. He apparently felt that the Jews' service of God should still stem, ultimately, from the fear of punishment. This is certainly a perspective appropriate for the desert, for the exile, but not for a healthy nation about to conquer the land. In Eretz Yisrael, service of Hashem should ideally stem from love, from a deep personal acceptance of the necessity of serving God, not as a response to the fear of punishment. Moshe's fate - his not entering the Land of Israel - was not a punishment in the classic sense of the word. It was more an indication that his leadership style was appropriate for the exile, but not for the Land of Israel.

Our sages teach us that were Moshe to have entered the Land, the Beit Hamikdash (Temple) would not have been destroyed, and the Jews would not have gone into exile! Why? If Moshe had merited entering the Land, the Jews would have merited serving Hashem out of love, out of a deep internal desire to do so. Our "Avodat Hashem" (service of God) would have utilized both our Good and Bad Inclinations, such that there would have been no room for sin "to find a home..."
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