An adaptation of the sermon I delivered this past Shabbat, Parshat Chukat, at Great Neck Synagogue, NY.
The scene this past week was a familiar one; it was that we have become used to over many years, even decades. On one side, there was an American President, elected officials, diplomats and government officials. On the other side, there was Shimon Peres, making his final visit to the U.S. as President of Israel, capping a career as an advocate and diplomat that predates even the State itself.
I wonder what a Shimon Peres thinks as he sits opposite counterparts who were not even born when he established himself as a presence and a force in capitals around the world, how he feels as the last of his generation, when he speaks with world leaders who could well be his grandchildren. Does he feel that there has been progress, that the conversations he is having now are built on a foundation he and his generation helped establish? Perhaps he feels as though he is starting over, that he is left having the same conversation, as significant as it is, over and over again, beginning each time at square one.
This morning’s parasha begins with a dramatic moment that is also very familiar. Moshe and Aharon face the Israelites, trying to satisfy their needs, strengthen their faith, address their complaints. To all appearances, Moshe and Aharon are the same as they’ve always been, but the people are different, unfamiliar. Last week’s parasha was set in the second year since the Exodus from Egypt; this week’s is set in the fortieth. Without any transition, an entire generation has come and gone. Last week, Moshe and Aharon asserted their leadership over a generation they took from Egypt, brought through the Reed Sea and to Sinai; this week, they are that generation’s sole survivors, looking out at a people with whom they shared none of those formative experiences.
Moshe and Aharon are effective, as always; the rock miraculously produces water, and the people’s thirst is slaked. But this time, something is different; catastrophe strikes. Instead of speaking to the rock, as God had told him, Moshe strikes it with his staff. For that infraction, he and Aharon were condemned to die in the wilderness with their generation, new leaders would guide the people towards their national destiny. But what was so terrible about the sin of hitting the rock instead of speaking to it; why was the punishment so severe?
Among the many answers offered by the commentators, I will highlight two schools of thought found in the Midrashic tradition. The first says that the sin was not necessarily of Moshe’s slight deviation from God’s command. Rather, it was because hitting the rock was a reaction born of anger and frustration, that the language with which he addressed the people smacked of bitter sarcasm.
Imagine Moshe and Aharon travelling through the wilderness for 38 years, watching as their entire generation grew older and passed on. Now the people before them look familiar, to be sure, but come from a different place. They never knew Egypt or Sinai; they did not learn the lessons of the Golden Calf nor of the Spies. When they make the same complaints that their parents did 38 years before, demonstrating the same faith it took their parents a generation to learn, Moshe suddenly realizes that he has to start from the very beginning, that he has to return to square one – and he cracks. Faced with the prospect that the last 38 years of his life were for naught, that he has to reteach a new generation the exact same lessons he invested so much of himself into teaching their parents, he reacts with frustration and lashes out.
God responds, by telling Moshe that this marked the end of the road. The people are essentially the same people that they were a generation before, but Moshe was not the same person. After investing his very essence into taking his nation from Egypt, elevating them to the point where they could stand at Sinai, and leading them to the very borders of the land of Israel, he simply did not have it in him to begin all over again. This interpretation says that everything Moshe did until this point was well done. He stumbled at the very end, faced with the prospect of having to go back and do it all over again.
The second interpretation, in contrast, says that the incident at the rock revealed an underlying problem that had existed the entire time. This school of thought says that the final judgement on Moshe was levied in this week’s parsha, but God knew from the very beginning that he would not complete the journey. In fact, it goes back to Moshe’s original protest when God charges him with his mission, his original reluctance to take his role. At that time, Moshe predicts “v’hem lo ya’aminu bi – they will not believe in me,” and God knew at that point that Moshe would not complete the journey.
According to this reading, perhaps Moshe, in his own mind, constantly fought against that underlying fear, constantly felt as though he was trying to convince the people. Whenever he encountered a setback, whenever the people stumbled or complained, Moshe might have looked back to his original concern, suspecting that perhaps he was correct after all and that he would not be successful. Finally, forty years later, the younger generation stands before him as he faces the rock. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moshe hits it. What exactly is the difference between hitting the rock and speaking to it?
The Netziv explains that, until this point, the Israelites were used to a supernatural existence. Whenever they faced an obstacle or challenge, Moshe raised his staff and miraculously resolved the situation. Now, as the prepared to enter the land of Israel, they needed to see Moshe set aside his staff, and turn instead to speech. They needed to learn how to pray, to ask and be answered, to establish a normal, natural connection to the Divine without the dramatic, unique experiences to which their ancestors had become accustomed.
But Moshe did not think that the people were ready to take that step. Perhaps he saw a new generation, one that did not physically leave Egypt or stand at Sinai, who did not sin and were punished along with the spies, and thought he would have to start all over again. So he did not teach the people to pray; instead, he gave them yet another miracle. The people, though, were not starting from square one; they stood on the foundation built by the previous generation. They were ready to take that next step, even if Moshe was not ready to take them there.
God tells Moshe that he missed a chance to perform a Kiddush HaShem, to elevate the people, to allow them to experience the Divine in a new way. According to this interpretation, hitting the rock demonstrated that Moshe had not changed, to the point where he did not recognize that the people had.
From the very beginning, one goal of Zionist leaders and thinkers was to establish a normal Jewish country, where normal people could raise normal children to live normal lives. Especially as the State of Israel was founded, and became populated with Jewish refugees from all over the world, the drive for normalcy was paramount. Nobody wanted their children to have to do the things they had to do, or experience the things they experienced. After all, who could possibly be strong enough to live under such pressure, in such an abnormal fashion, year after year, generation after generation. They didn’t see any way that could possibly continue. It is why a series of leaders, Shimon Peres among them, recognizing the strain that mere survival took on their generation, took incredible risks for peace, for a chance of giving the next generation that shot at a normal national life.
Israel’s founders did not realize, though, that the generations they tried so hard to protect were building an incredible edifice of their own upon the foundation they found before them. Rather than being demoralized by kidnappings, by terror, and constant presence of enemies and unrest, each new generation has risen up with resolve and determination, has grown to meet each new challenge. The Yifrach, Shaer, and Frankel families have been teaching us an unforgettable lesson in meeting even the worst adversity with grace, resilience, faith, and dignity. They have rallied an entire country, and an entire nation, with a spirit of unity and solidarity that touches us so profoundly, even 6,000 miles away.
These are not normal people, nor are the people who have stood with them for the last two weeks, both in Israel and around the world. Both in strength of spirit and also in depth of humanity, we all understand, at a very fundamental level, that we have been part of something very special, very unusual, over these past two weeks. It is humbling to see the best of us so consistently on open display.
This week, a class of seniors at Yeshivat Mekor Chaim is graduating high school, to be drafted into the IDF. In defiance of what anyone might reasonably expect, from Moshe until today, a people continues to progress, forward and upward, step by step, towards its ultimate destiny.