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Compulsion vs. Inspiration: Is Torah a Burden or a Gift?

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

To some, Torah is a most precious and cherished gift. To others, it is a most cumbersome and unwelcome burden. Which is it? And how can it be so divergently perceived?

Some embrace God as an adoring and benevolent parent. Others cower before God – or even flee from Him – as a strict and implacable ruler. Which characterization is correct? And why do we conceive of Him with such vastly contrasting images?

In Parshas Chukas (read last week in Israel and this week outside of Israel), we find an insight that may shed some light on these contradictions. As the nation approaches the border of the Promised Land, the miraculous well that supplied water throughout the desert journey dries up upon Miriam’s death. God commands Moses to speak to the rock from which the water had flowed so that it would once again spring forth: “Assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water” (Numbers 20:8).

Moses strikes the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it. Water flows anew, but for the error of striking the rock rather than speaking to it, Moses is told by God that he will die in the desert and will not be allowed to enter the land with the rest of the nation.

This episode has puzzled the sages throughout the generations. What was Moses’ great sin? What is the tremendous difference between hitting the rock and speaking to it, and why was hitting the rock so heinous a crime that it merited such a severe punishment?

To complicate the matter further, this is not the first time Moses was instructed to draw water from the rock, nor was it the first time he struck the rock to do so. In Parshas Beshallach, we read that forty years earlier, at the very beginning of the nation’s journey through the desert, God had told Moses to strike the rock with his staff to make it flow with water: “You shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink” (Exodus 17:6).

Not only was there no punishment for striking the rock at this beginning of their desert journey, but this is precisely how God instructed Moses to elicit the water. It is certainly true that forty years later God told him to speak to the rock, but was it so egregious for Moses to assume that striking the rock would work again this second time as it had the first time? He may have been guilty of failing to listen precisely, but was this worthy of so stringent a penalty?

The Sages explain that these two episodes with the rock and its water – the first in Parshas Beshallach and the second in Parshas Chukas – represent two different phases in the development of the Jewish nation. At the beginning of the forty years, when the nation had just recently escaped Egypt, the people were at a very low level of spiritual development. For hundreds of years, they had been living as slaves in the most morally depraved country in the world. For generations, their motivation was fear and force. They were a people that responded to being whipped and compelled. In such a context, Moses was commanded to strike the rock, which was a metaphor for the nation itself. In order to elicit the desired response from such a people, force and compulsion was required.

At the second episode with the rock in Parshas Chukas, forty years had elapsed, and the nation was at a very different level of development. Not only had they received the Torah and studied its teachings for decades, but all of those who had grown up in slavery, as well as all of those who had sinned with the Golden Calf and cried at the spies wicked report, had already died. This was a new generation that had matured in the spiritual oasis of the desert, nestled in God’s embraced and reared on manna and water from the miraculous well. These people were intensely sensitive to spirituality. They did not need to be struck or compelled in order to elicit the life-giving essence that flowed from within them. A few gentle words would suffice. And in such a case, violence or corporal punishment would not only be inappropriate, but it would actually be damaging.

Moses’ error was that he thought he was still dealing with his original flock. He was the leader who had overcome Pharaoh and had wrangled a stiff-necked nation of former slaves. Moses’ leadership style was precisely what was necessary for his time. And as the new generation was preparing to enter the new land, Moses’ time was at an end. This does not indicate a fault in Torah’s greatest leader, but rather a powerful lesson about growth and the truth of the statement from Ecclesiastes, “for every thing there is a season, and there is a time for every matter under heaven” (Kohelet 3:1). Seen in this light, Moses’ death outside the promised land was not a punishment, but rather a recognition that his place was the spiritually elevated realm of the desert. It would be Joshua who would lead the next generation into the land.

Torah’s narratives teach us not only history, morality and law, but they teach us about ourselves. From this story about drawing water from the rock, we learn that there are two distinct types of people. There are those who are at the beginning of their journey. Impetuous and undeveloped, their vision is clouded by their impulses, and it is often difficult for them to make decisions that will ultimately be in their best interest. They therefore need to be disciplined and compelled. Authority is viewed with disdain, and they comply only begrudgingly and indignantly when they are intimidated with the rod.

And then there are those who have journeyed and matured. They have come to understand that guidelines are not imposed only to saddle and break them, but rather to nurture and direct them. They have gained the strength to harness their impulses, and they appreciate the forces in life that kept them safe and guided them through the storms of passion that characterize their spiritual adolescence. They have reached a phase of maturity in which they experience the elegance of their universe and the intense beauty of the creation. They have come to see God in everything, and in everything they find an opportunity to be uplifted. There is no need for these people to be struck or compelled. It takes only a few gentle words to inspire them and to elicit the spiritual reservoir that flows deep within them.

Some people remain in the first state throughout their lives. Due, perhaps, to their morally bankrupt environment, or to their teachers or leaders who have treated them like slaves and whipped them either literally or (maybe even more damagingly) with words of violence and shame, some will forever be like the nation at the beginning of its journey in the desert. They will respond and give only if they are struck, and life will always be experienced as a burden and duty.

But like the nation at the end of their forty years in the desert, today we stand on the border of the redemption. Throughout this long exile, we have been enslaved and beaten down. Yet we are done with the rod, and we are ready to be inspired. We no longer require fear and intimidation to allow our soul to burst like water from within us. We are ready for God’s warm and loving embrace. We are open to the word, and we are ready for it to lift us up and carry us across the Jordan to the long awaited promised land.


The writer is the author of the recently released Pnei Hashem, an accessible introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah. www.pneihashem.com

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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