TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Hukkat


TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Hukkat
June 23, 2018 | 10 Tammuz 5778

Annual | Numbers 19:1-22:1 (Etz Hayim p. 880-893; Hertz p. 652-664)
Triennial | Numbers 20:1-21:10 (Etz Hayim p. 883-889; Hertz p. 655-660)
Haftarah | Judges 11:1-33 (Etz Hayim p. 909-913; Hertz p. 664-667)

D’var Torah: Positive Leadership
Jonathan WassermanConservative Yeshiva Student & Lishma Fellow

In Parshat Hukkat, we read an instance of a familiar trope: the Israelites are without water, and they register their complaints with Moses and Aaron who bring the predicament before God. God tells them to “take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water…” (Numbers 20:8) Then, a pivotal moment occurs:

[9] Moses took the rod from before the LORD, as He had commanded him. [10] Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” [11] And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank. [12] But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

In a fleeting instant, Moses loses the opportunity to see his life’s most significant work through to its completion.

In the verses, the reason that God gives for the punishment is that Moses and Aaron did not trust God enough. Commentators of all generations, sensing that the punishment may not have fit the crime, saw fit to supplement this reason with other possibilities. The Hasidic Master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (Belarus & Ukraine, 1740–1809), in his signature work Kedushat Levi, cites the opinions of medieval commentators Rashi (France, 1040-1105) and Rambam (Spain, Morocco & Egypt, 1135-1204). Rashi claims that Moses’ sin was his direct violation of God’s order. God told Moses to command the rock and Moses struck it. Alternatively, Rambam claims that Moses’ transgression stems from the way he spoke to the people ([10] “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”). (see Kedushat Levi on Parshat Hukkat, Comment #4)

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak asserts that Rashi and Rambam’s conclusions are not different – rather, one causes the other. He explains by identifying two kinds of leaders: one who leads through encouragement and aspiration, and another who leads through force, negative pressure, and embarrassment. While Moses could have encouraged the Israelites to live up to their potential by pointing out their Godly mission and inherent goodness, he chose to call them “rebels,” fixating on their worst tendencies. According to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak, Moses should have spoken to the rock and said “since you were created for Israel, and they are on such a high level, you need to do that for which you were created–namely to bring forth water for the Jewish people.” But since Moses could not find it in himself to speak of the Israelites meritoriously, the rock had no motivation to fulfill its obligation to them. Thus, the only way to get the rock to release its water was to strike it, which lost Moses his privilege to accompany the Israelites into Canaan. As Rabbi Levi Yitzhak says, Rambam’s climactic moment led to Rashi’s climactic moment.

Should Moses have been punished so severely for his words and actions? Given the past conduct of the Israelites, rife with complaining and faithlessness, Moses’ verbal treatment of them seems justified. But Rabbi Levi Yitzhak’s reading of this event illustrates a challenge that a leader of a difficult group will inevitably face, and that which Moses ultimately failed to meet. When the people began to complain, Moses had a choice: push them by degrading and pressuring them, or by lifting them up to a better future. When he chose the former, he showed that he had lost his faith in the people. And when the leader – the person responsible for pushing the people toward a better future – loses faith, how can anyone else (or a rock) have it? When we lead people and ask them to strive toward new goals and heights, we can only do so if we believe in them.

Parashat Hukkat Self-Study
Vered Hollander-GoldfarbConservative Yeshiva Faculty

We have reached the 40th year in the desert. Now some of the leaders that led us out of Egypt die, and land in trans-Jordan is conquered. We are, geographically, on the threshold of Eretz Yisrael.

1) In 20:1 we are told that Miriam died. We are given no information about the reaction of the people. Try to think of all the episodes in which Miriam was involved, from watching her brother Moshe on the Nile, to leading the dancing after the splitting of the sea, to her Tzara’at (leprosy). What do you think that people said upon hearing about her death?

2) Immediately following Miriam’s death, we are told that the people are out of water (20:2-13). They approach Moshe and Aaron in a threatening manner, blaming them for bringing them to the desert to die rather than delivering them to a fruitful land. How do you think that these 2 episodes affected Moshe and Aaron? (At the end of this story, Moshe and Aaron are told that they will not enter the land of Israel.)

3) Their travels take the people to the edge of the land of Edom (20:14-21). In an attempt to cross peacefully, they send a message to the king telling their history, asking permission and declaring that they will remain on the main road and not drink from the wells. What do you think that Edom feared? What was the final answer from Edom?

4) Moshe and Aaron are informed about Aaron’s upcoming death (20:22-29). Present by his deathbed are Moshe and Aaron’s son Elazar. Moshe removes Aaron’s garments and puts them on Elazar. What do you think is the meaning of this? Why does it have to be done before Aaron dies?

5) When the people approach the land of Sihon king of the Emorites (21:21-35) they again send messengers requesting passage, but this time they omit telling their history. Why do you think that they ‘skip’ this detail?

D’var Haftarah: An Imperfect Leader for an Imperfect World
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Jephthah was not pedigreed. He was a self-made man who lived on the periphery of society after having been forced out by his half-brothers. Along with others like him, he became a formidable leader. And so, when Gilad was threatened by the Ammonites, its leaders turned to him to save them. Jephthah, besides being a talented warrior, was a skilled negotiator as well. Though they thought to appoint him only to be their “katzin” or military leader, Jephthah parried this offer into something bigger, pressing them to appoint him to be “rosh” or head of the people.

This same savvy proved crucial in his dealings with the Ammonites. As a skilled negotiator and an astute general, he navigated the situation thrust upon him and his people. The Ammonites argued that the children of Israel had stolen their land on their way to returning to Eretz Yisrael. Jephthah skillfully countered with four key points: 1. When the children of Israel conquered the land claimed by the Ammonites, it was in possession of the Amorites; 2. They only conquered from the Amorites because they would not let the children of Israel pass through their land, and decided to make war on them instead; 3. The children of Israel had conquered it only because God had favored them and granted them victory; 4. The land was in Israel’s position for over 300 years, and in that time the Ammonites had never once asserted their case.

Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim (19th century Lithuania) explains that what Jephtah was saying is that unless one has a legitimate land claim, the only reason for war is if: “one sins against his fellow’s honor.” Otherwise, “it is wrong to transgress the laws of kings and the customs of nations…”

Jephthah hoped to avert war while still upholding the integrity of Israel’s position that they had not wronged Ammon. Unfortunately, the king of Ammon rejected Jephthah’s overture. Was it that Jephtah’s argument had no merit? Rabbi Yitzhak Abrabanel (15th-16th century Portugal, Spain, Italy), the statesman and exegete, asserted that the King of Ammon rejected Jephthah’s arguments only because he did not accept Jephthah’s status as ruler.  Ammon otherwise would have obeyed the laws of kings and the customs of nations.

Both of these opinions remind us that even when one’s position is legitimate, war is sometimes a necessary last resort when attempts at a negotiated settlement fail. But it also reminds us that success or failure in geopolitics is often dependent on the choice of the right leader at the right time. Jephthah, with all of his failings, fit the bill. We also must take similar care in choosing our leadership. The fate of the nation or world might depend upon it.

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