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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: If in doubt, don't


When Miriam died, the flow of water in the desert ceased. The Jewish people were scared that they were being punished for their errors. It was the wrong decision for Moses to hit the rock. For a relatively minor error, the consequences and punishment upon Moses were quick and severe. Only the Torah, being a book of Divine origin, dares to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth. Why does the Torah question Moses' belief? When G'd gives a command, it cannot be changed. Only G'd knows all the reasons for His commands. We should never try to second guess G'd.

Miriam dies, well disappears

In the 40th year of the Jewish people's sojourn in the desert, Miriam passed away and the flow of water ceased. Throughout the 40 years, the Jewish people were provided with a well that miraculously followed them in the merit of this great woman (see Taanis 9a). It is understandable that the Jewish people quickly began to despair, especially since there was no water to nourish the infants and children. They gathered and complained to Moses fearing that they were going to die in the desert. Although this was the new generation born in the desert, who had not taken part in any of the sins mentioned earlier, they were scared that they were being punished for some error that they had made.

Speak to the rock

G'd told Moses, "Take your staff, call an assembly, you and your brother Aaron, speak to the rock before their eyes and it shall bring forth its waters" (Bamidbar 20:7). Moses did as he was told, but as our Sages explain, Moses could not properly identify the correct rock, so when he spoke to the rock that he had chosen, no water came forth. The Jewish people were desperate. They argued what difference would it make from which rock Moses brought the water. Rashi, referring to the Midrash, relates that the Jewish people caste aspersions on Moses saying, "Moses knows the nature of these rocks. If he really wanted, he could bring forth water immediately." Moses got angry and reproved the Jewish people referring to them as "rebels" (Bamidbar 20:10). Moses was in a dilemma. On the one hand, G'd had expressly told him to speak to the rock, not to strike it. On the other hand, maybe he was supposed to strike the rock, similar to a previous occasion when he struck a rock with his staff to bring out water (see Shemos 17:5). After all, G'd had told him to take his staff. Moses was worried. If he did not listen to the Jewish people, this may lead to a desecration of G'd's name, since no water was appearing as promised by G'd. However, G'd had told him to speak to the rock. Moses decided that the right thing to do was to hit the rock. Unfortunately, it was the wrong decision. G'd immediately told Moses and Aaron that because they did not believe in Him and sanctify His Name in the eyes of the Jewish people. Therefore, they would not be allowed to bring the Jewish people into the land of Israel (Bamidbar 20:12).

Great leaders, great consequences

Much has been written about Moses striking the rock. One aspect of the incident is that it shows the greatness of Moses. For a relatively minor error, the consequences and the punishment upon Moses were very quick and severe. This could only happen to a great leader such as Moses. Our Sages offer many opinions as to exactly what Moses did wrong. Some say he should not have become angry with the Jewish people. Others say that he should not have struck the rock. The Abarbanel offers ten different opinions, questions all of them and offers another of his own. But regardless of the different approaches, the description of the incident highlights the greatness of Moses and the truthfulness of the Torah. No other nation records its history in such a manner as to illustrate the flaws of its leaders and its people. Only the Torah, being a book of Divine origin, dares to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Was Moses a non-believer?

The Torah states that Moses was punished because he did not believe in G'd at the time of striking the rock. How can this be so? There is no doubt that Moses had good intentions. The reason he struck the rock was to provide water for the Jewish people and to sanctify G'd's name. He had nothing to gain personally from the situation. And there is no doubt that Moses loved G'd with all his heart, his soul and his life. Moses was the most devoted servant of G'd. So why does the Torah question his belief?

Don't second-guess G'd

Rabbi Yosef Horwitz (The Alter of Novardok) explains that when G'd gives a command, it cannot be changed. Even if we sincerely believe that we have the best reasons to change it, anyone who does not follow G'd's commands, lacks in his belief in G'd. If G'd commands you to do something, no matter how good your intentions may be, you are not allowed to second-guess G'd. Instead of hitting the rock, Moses could have prayed to G'd to ask why he was having trouble getting the water by speaking to the rock. His doubt was no reason for him to breach G'd's command.

Only G'd knows

Under no circumstances are we allowed to amend G'd's command. King Solomon understood reasons for all Mitzvoth except that of the Red Heifer. Thus, he came to the conclusion that even if we know some reasons for a Mitzvah, we never know all the reasons. Only G'd knows all the reasons for His commands. G'd is eternal and so is His Torah. Even if one reason for a Mitzvah seems not to apply, there are other reasons, unknown to us, which make the Mitzvah relevant at any time.

Eternal Torah

The story is told of a certain gentleman who approached the Chief Rabbi of Berlin, R. Hirsh Levin, and questioned whether certain laws in the Torah still apply in modern times. The gentleman argued that if Moses lived in our times, he would not have written the Torah the same way. The Rabbi answered with a parable. "There once was a merchant who hired a driver to bring merchandise to the market in another town. The merchant made it very clear that it was vital that the goods arrive in the other town by a certain date. The driver agreed to the terms of the contract to deliver the goods and agreed to forfeit his fee and pay damages to the merchant if the goods were not delivered in accordance with the contract. While travelling on the road, the driver encountered a terrible snowstorm that blocked parts of the road and reduced the visibility. Due to the storm, the driver did not arrive in time. The merchant was not able to sell his goods and suffered damages. Rather than honour the terms of the contract and pay the merchant's damages, the driver argued that he should be paid for his troubles. The driver believed that he was not responsible to have foreseen the extent of the snowstorm. The matter was referred to the local rabbi who decided that the driver was responsible to pay damages to the merchant in accordance with the contract. After hearing the rabbi's decision, the driver continued to argue his case. The Rabbi said that although he felt sorry for the driver, his decision was based on the Torah. "Tell me, Rabbi", said the driver, "when was the Torah given?" The Rabbi said, "Shavuous, of course." The driver replied," On Shavuous, in the month of Sivan, there was no snow. If Moses had given the Torah to the Jewish people in the winter, then I would have won my case and the merchant would have to pay me money." Rabbi Levin said to the gentleman, "you are like this driver. The Torah is eternal and does not change from one period of time to another."

Circumstances may change. We may have questions, but we should never try to second guess G'd. We must accept that our understanding is limited. Only the Creator, in His Infinite wisdom, knows the importance of every single Mitzvah and its purpose in the world He created.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel