Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Chukat
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

R. Avraham Ben David

Parashat Chukat

Parshat Chukat - "Water from the Rock"

Faith in the uniqueness of the Jewish people, a faith which resides deep in the heart of every Jew, has the power to cause sacred water to flow from the heart of even the hardest of stones; not through blows and not by the rod, but through pleasant words.


Rabbi Azriel Ariel

1. Water from the Rock
2. The Snake and the Tongue
3. A Snake that Kills. A Snake that Heals

Water from the Rock
One of the great puzzles of this weeks Torah portion is the "Water from the Rock" episode. Much ink has been spilled regarding the question of Moses' sin in striking the rock. The explanation that follows is based upon the opinions of two renowned supercommentaries to Rashi's own unparalleled Torah commentary - those of Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrachi, or "the Mizrachi," and Rabbi Yehudah Liva, better known as "the Maharal of Prague."

The situation that Moses faced was not an easy one. God commanded him to speak to "the rock" - a particular rock. Moses was forced to search for the rock that God had referred to among all the other rocks. In the meantime, the Children of Israel stood by anxiously, waiting to see what Moses would come up with. Moses was faced with two possible paths, both undesireable. If he continued to search, the people would suspect him of simply stalling for time in order to find a natural spring; were it, they reasoned, truly God's desire that a miracle be performed, why not allow it to be performed through any rock? Why one particular rock? On the other hand, Moses realized that if he were to speak to any other rock than that which God had commanded him, he would be guilty of transgressing the Divine Word. At this point, Moses said to the Israelites, "Listen now, you rebels! Shall we produce water for you from this rock [concerning which God has not commanded]? Shall we bring out for you water [in a manner not in keeping with God's word]?!".

The people, though, were not appeased by Moses' words. They became increasingly suspicious of Moses. Then, suddenly, it appears to Moses as if he has found "the rock." He speaks to it, yet it turns out not to be the rock God intended... and all the while the Children of Israel are standing there watching. Moses approaches a different rock, the correct one, yet, this time he does not speak to it. He simply strikes it. The rock, in an attempt to make Moses aware of his mistake, begins to emit a few drops of water. Nevertheless, Moses strikes it a second time. At this point water comes gushing forth from the rock.

Moses' situation was not an easy one. He was engaged in battle from all sides. Failure lay in wait, ready for ambush. A terrible desecration of God's name could result from any decision. What was he to do? Moses knew that he must uphold God's commandment, and he behaved accordingly. Yet, he was lacking one thing - unflinching trust in God. The fear of the extreme consequences that might result from a possible miscalculation nullified his joy and weakened his unswerving trust in God. This fear, in turn, brought him to a state of anger, anger that found expression in the words, "Listen now, you rebels!" The fear of failing in his mission, along with his angry frustration with the people, caused Moses to make a mistake in identifying the rock. Even when he at last he found the rock, he erred - he was not certain that this was in fact the Rock.

As a result of his fear, and because of his deficient trust in God, Moses was punished. "Because you did not have faith in me to sanctify me." Faith and trust. These two traits possess the power to bring forth the waters of life from even the toughest of rocks - via speech. Faith in the uniqueness of the Jewish people, a faith which resides deep in the heart of every Jew, has the power to cause sacred water to flow from the heart of even the hardest of stones; not through blows and not by the rod, but through pleasant words. The fear and the dread that we may not merit fulfilling God's desire, precisely when we act in accordance with the Torah and its precepts, leads many good individuals to admonish others through anger and rejection. It is the correction of this transgression that makes possible the Children of Israel's eventual entrance into the Land of Israel.

The Snake and the Tongue
The Children of Israel are forced to journey through the desert in order to go around the Land of Edom. The road is long and unfamiliar. They had been so close to the Land of Israel, and here, she is suddenly becoming distanced from them. What's more, the Israelites are now facing nutritional hardships. "There is no bread and there is no water! We are becoming disgusted with this unsubstantial food" (Numbers 21:5). The divine response is not slow in coming. Snakes bite the people. Why, though, of all things snakes?

Torah commentators, in the footsteps of the sages of the Talmud, reveal the long history behind these snakes, beginning with the Original Serpent in the Garden of Eden, continuing through the Serpent of Moses, and arriving at those which appear in our portion. The power of the serpent lies in his tongue. The Original Serpent deceives Eve via cunning speech. From that point onward the serpent's mouth is characterized by two unique aspects: by what enters it - "Dust you shall eat, all the days of your life"; and, by what departs it - a deadly venom. Similarly, the Children of Israel sinned in two ways: with regard to that which entered their mouths - they were reluctant to accept the food that God had provided them; and, with regard to that which departed from their mouths - they slandered both God and Moses.

The link, though, between the serpent and sinful speech runs much deeper than this. All beasts strike at their fellow beast for purposes of self-interest. Wild animals trample and tear each other to pieces in order to attain food. The snake, though, in biting other animals, does not derive any sort of personal gain. The same principle holds true regarding slanderers. Were such an individual truly interested in mending the world, he would no doubt make an effort to express his criticism in a positive and effective manner. In this sort of situation, one ought to be able to find the proper way to express himself, such that he not stray from the conditions laid down in Jewish law regarding permissible beneficial libel. This sort of speech - beneficial libel - is not considered a transgression. It is, in fact, counted as a virtue. Sometimes, though, criticism is expressed with no desire to mend; neither is it expressed in a beneficial or positive manner. It merely serves as an outlet for releasing pressure. One who slanders is concerned not with the future, but with the past. His speech does not represent an attempt to repair; it is, rather, an expression of bent up anger. Not an acceptance of responsibility but a placing of blame.

It is for this reason that the poisonous snakes appear and begin biting the people. These snakes have only one objective: to envenom and to destroy. They are not interested in building and creating. By virtue of these snakes the Israelites learn that they must abandon their slanderous ways and adopt a different approach: They must consider their actions and proceed consistently in order to achieve results. Hence, God commands Moses to make a copper snake. He wants them to learn how to transform their snake-like behavior ("Nachashiyut") into steadfastness ("Nechishut"). When the Jews gazed upwards, making their hearts subservient to the Almighty and acting steadfastly towards the perfection of the world - they were healed.

A Snake that Kills. A Snake that Heals
Snakes surround the Israelite camp. They penetrate her boarders and bite the people. The situation is a difficult one. "Many Israelites died." The divine solution is quick in coming. "Make yourself a copper snake... Everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." Concerning this episode the Sages say: "Can a serpent kill or resurrect? Rather, [this event] is merely coming to teach that when Israel looked toward heaven and kept their hearts in submission to the Almighty, they were healed; if not, they wasted away."

At first glance, the question of the Sages appears to relate to the copper serpent: Is this the way of the Torah? Erasing sins and to healing bites through the agency of a copper amulet? Closer inspection, though, reveals an additional question. The Sages are not merely troubled by the supernatural phenomenon of the healing serpent. They question the all too natural phenomenon of a snake that kills. Concerning its appearance they ask with the same astonishment, "Can a serpent kill?"
We find the Sages astonishment difficult to understand. Were they not aware of the fact that the nature of snakes is to kill? They themselves, in listing those animals that are liable to inflict harm bring the following rule: "Snakes are always an attested danger." It is the nature of the snake to bite; it is the nature of a snakebite to bring death upon its victim. Here, though, the Sages want to make us aware that even the very laws of nature are not free of God's providence. In the words of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa: "It is not the wild ass that kills but [man's own] sin that kills." That a living snake can bring about death is no more astonishing a fact than that a copper snake can preserve life. Both are no more than agents in the hand of God, the Creator and Conductor of the universe.

The same rule holds true regarding rulers. It often appears to them as if the power to bring about death or to keep alive rests in their very hands. Yet, in truth, even a leader of the People of Israel is no more than an agent of God's providence over His people - a providence that is not influenced by trivial political considerations or human frailty. God's providence is a complex system of ethical and spiritual considerations, which eventually leads to the resurrection of the nation, and the perfection of the world. When the Israelites would gaze beyond the revealed causes at work in the world, look toward heaven, and keep their hearts in submission to the Almighty, they managed to overcome all obstacles and to be healed.

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