Torah Portion: Chukat (Numbers 19:1-25:9)
Tamuz 12, 5780
The New Old Path
Inside all of us are powerful inclinations against which it can be difficult to battle. We all know our strengths and our weaknesses, and the triggers most likely to lead us towards temptation. In order to succeed in navigating ourselves towards the paths of goodness and holiness, we must actively avoid situations that may place us at risk of temptation from our inner enemies. In this episode in the Torah, the inner enemy is the temptation towards immorality. Yet there are many other everyday temptations waiting to trip us. It is up to all of us to identify these triggers and to distance ourselves from them. If we succeed in separating from them, we will be blessed with a life of holiness.
Moses Hits the Rock
by Rabbi Shraga Simmons
This week’s Parsha features one of the most perplexing incidents in the entire Torah. The Jews have been wandering for 40 years in the desert and they’re thirsty. So God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water will come forth (Numbers 20:8). The instruction to “speak” to the rock is in contrast to 40 years earlier, when Moses followed God’s instruction to hit the rock — and water gushed out (Exodus 17:6). This time, Moses is to speak. Yet he again hits the rock. Nothing happens, so Moses hits the rock a second time, and water comes out.
God’s response: “Since you HIT the rock rather than speaking to it, you will not lead the Jewish people into the Land of Israel” (Numbers 20:11-12).
We read this story and think: Here’s the mighty Moses, who confronted Pharaoh, arranged the Ten Plagues, split the Red Sea, brought the Torah down from Mount Sinai, and defended the people through trials and tribulations in the desert. Now he makes one little mistake and God takes away his dream of entering Israel. The consequence seems inappropriately harsh!
The first step in understanding this incident is to appreciate how the Jewish people were at the critical juncture of transitioning from desert life to Israel. At the rock, God’s instructions to Moses are carefully chosen to reflect this transition. Forty years earlier, when Moses was told to HIT the rock, the people had just come out of brutal slavery in Egypt — and “hitting” was a language they understood. But this time, Moses was called upon to lead a generation who’d grown up in freedom; a generation which required the softer approach of “speaking.”
Notice how in our Parsha, Moses hits the rock twice. First, he hit the rock and no water came out. At that moment he had the opportunity to reevaluate his approach and reflect more carefully on God’s specific instruction to “speak.” But Moses hits the rock again.
The commentators suggest that perhaps symbolically, we can learn about our own need to be flexible in our approach. Moses’ punishment is not harsh; it is simply a consequence of his relationship to the new generation and their needs in entering Israel.
We learn from this a crucial lesson about education. King Solomon says: “Educate each child according to his own way.” The process of learning is different for everybody, and the approach that’s effective for one is often not effective for another.
This defines the crucial difference between education and indoctrination. “Indoctrination” is when the teacher is concerned primarily with advancing his position. “Education” is drawing out from the student’s own intuitive sense.
This idea is elucidated in the Talmud, which says: “Even more than the baby calf wants to drink, the mother wants to nurse.” The simple understanding is that of course the calf is hungry and needs to eat. But even more so “the mother wants to nurse” — meaning that the mother is full of milk and needs to get it out.
However, I heard in the name of Rabbi Simcha Wasserman (20th century Los Angeles and Jerusalem) that the Talmud must be understood differently. Because if the mother’s only concern is to get rid of her milk, then it would come out in one big gush. And we see instead that it comes out precisely in the right proportion to satisfy the specific needs of the calf. So when the Talmud says, “More than the baby calf wants to drink, the mother wants to nurse,” it is saying that even more than the calf desires to eat, the mother wants that it should eat — not for the mother’s sake, but because that’s what’s best for the calf. And that, said Rabbi Wasserman, is what good education is all about.
Jewish ideals have existed against all odds for 3,000 years — not because we’ve pounded people over the head, but because we’ve communicated those ideas in a rational, practical way. Anyone who says that yeshiva is a cult is woefully misinformed. Yeshiva is precisely the place to discuss the issues, ask questions, work it through, and make it your own.
It is interesting that the experience of Moses in the desert can be understood in light of the experience of Judaism in the 20th century. In the shtetl of Europe, a rabbi might be able to communicate displeasure to his students by hitting the knuckles with a ruler. It was a language that was accepted and understood. But when tens of thousands of Jews moved to America, those who sent their children to Jewish day school found these same rabbis applying their European-style methods to children with American mentalities. These children, who were used to a more open and permissive approach, could not relate to Judaism as it was being presented. The result is that many of them shifted away from observance.
It has only been in the last 20 years — with American-born rabbis now taking the helm and explaining Judaism in modern, relevant terms — that American Jewry has seen a resurgence back toward traditional observance. Berel Wein writes: “In our always-uncertain world, it is natural to crave security and stability. Financial planners, estate planners, insurance experts and politicians in office all attempt to convince us that the way it is now is how it will be in the future as well. However, all of us in our secret hearts know that the only thing certain about the future is that it will not be the same as the present.
Therefore, we should be prepared to be open to new circumstances, to a constantly changing world. We should not be afraid to try out new technology, new ideas and theories, to change careers and pursue our true interests and goals. There is an innate longing for greatness within all of us. That longing can never be fulfilled without a willingness to change, improve and try something new.”
Like Moses and the rock, our ability to adjust and customize our approach — while remaining true to Torah standards — will in large part determine how successfully we move our children, our students, our nation and ourselves forward into the “Land of Israel” — into the next exciting stage of personal and national destiny.
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