June 29, 2012

Parashat Chukkat is a perplexing section of the Torah. Each narrative raises questions. The red heifer ritual, the terse description of Miriam’s death, the chaotic scene around the rock in Kadesh with the ambiguously explained condemnation of Moses and Aaron, and then the hapless encounters of Israel with its future neighbors—none of this seems to add up to a commanding narrative or moral lesson.  The people ofIsraelare in disarray.

While there are many renown commentaries on these passages, there is a great series of essays written by scholar Jacob Milgrom at the end of his JPS Torah commentary on Numbers.  Every year I enjoy rereading Milgrom’s excursus, “Magic, Monotheism, and the Sin of Moses.” His explanation of the “sin” is most convincing. You can read it, but to save the intrigue, Milgrom argues that Moses sinned in speaking during the miracle of the production of water from the rock. It was not his mocking tone of voice, or the fact that he struck the rock, but the very utterance of speech that undermined the miracle. How so?

Milgrom builds on medieval commentator Bekhor Shor, who enigmatically states that the sin was found in the Hebrew word, “notzi” (we shall bring forth the water)—which could easily have been heard as a claim that Moses and Aaron had the power to perform this miracle with divine assistance.

Yet Milgrom goes further, noting that the staff of Moses was NOT meant to be a magic wand, but rather a pointer. Moses was supposed to announce a miracle from God and then gesture silently with the staff to indicate that it is going to happen NOW. The danger of speaking during the miracle is that observers may think that Moses is not merely announcing the miracle but actually performing it. By speaking as he hit the rock, Moses made it seem (intentionally or not) that he was casting a spell or performing a miracle himself.

In the context of Chukkat—with the magic potion of the red heifer and the seemingly sympathetic magic of the copper snake that Moses made—curing the people who had been bitten by real “fiery serpents.”  This makes it extremely risky thatIsraelwill come to see its religion as equivalent to the magic of others, and its leader as a merely a better wizard than his rivals (like Balaam). While this unwanted utterance by Moses may seem like a minor matter to us, it was apparently a major matter to God.

You see a bit of the same differentiation in Exodus 19 when God demands that Moses descend from the mountain before the theophany.[i] God is concerned thatIsrael will think of Moses as his partner, not his prophet. This is probably the ultimate reason that Moses is not permitted to accompany the people into the Land—it is God who delivered them from slavery, revealed the Torah and provided the land. The great leadership of Moses is evident at each step, but it is never allowed to encroach upon the authority of God.

What does this mean for us? This story is a reminder that any of us in whatever leadership capacity we work in, we must be humble and recognize that there is a greater being.  There is a time to be audacious and assertive, but we must always be on guard to avoid the impression that we are the source of the good, the true and the holy. Moses remains our greatest prophet because of his humility— this rare lapse is the exception. May we learn from the triumphs of Moses, and from his failures, to be faithful servants of God.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


[1] The sensible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.