Moses entered the stage of Jewish history by heroically striking an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave [Ex. 2:11-12]. In contrast, his unfortunate striking of a rock in this week’s Biblical portion of Chukat precipitated his exit from the stage of Jewish history. His first act of striking was done out of love for his people and outreach to his brethren, an act of courage and self-sacrifice that forced him to flee the house of Pharaoh.
The striking of the rock, however—which in reality was directed at the People of Israel, whom he called “rebels” —was an expression of deep frustration with a nation that had defied his teachings and fomented rebellion after rebellion to undermine his and God’s authority. What had happened to cause Moses to lash out at his beloved nation?
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlap (1883–1951), a close disciple and confidant of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, describes in his multi-volume Mei Marom the change in Moses’ mindset towards the People of Israel by distinguishing between two descriptive nouns for them, which are usually taken for synonyms: kehal and eidah, assemblage and community.
A kahal [“assemblage’] consists of the many individuals who gather together, the separate and disparate persons who make up a crowd.
An eidah [“community”] is guided by a specific purpose, which serves to unite and connotes individuals united by their commitment to historic continuity from generation to generation. Indeed, the very term eidah comes from the same Hebrew root as witness [eid] and testimony [eidut]. The continued survival of the nation of Israel despite exile and persecution in accordance with the Divine covenant serves as eloquent testimony to the reality and truth of God’s presence and of Israel’s mission: humanity perfected in a world redeemed.
With this background, let us take a fresh look at our Biblical portion. Immediately following Miriam’s death, the desert wells dry up and the Israelites assemble as a crowd of disparate rabble [vayikahalu] in complaint against Moses and Aaron. In response, God addresses Moses: “Take the staff, and you and Aaron assemble the community [hak’hel et ha’eidah]. Speak to the rock in their presence and it will give forth its water. You will thereby bring forth water from the rock and allow the community [ha’eidah] and their beasts to drink” [ibid., v. 8].
Please take note that Moses is told by God to assemble the community [eidah]. However, “Moses and Aaron assembled the assemblage [kahal] in front of the rock” (ibid., v. 10)! They, the leaders, had lost the vision of Israel as an eidah, a witness-community!
What a literal reading is teaching us is that God wanted Moses to look at the motley crew of complainers and see that behind the façade of rabble were to be found witnesses “eidim] of the Divine. Moses was thereby supposed to appreciate the great potential of this people: that standing before him were the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, and the parents of Yishai, David, and the righteous Messiah.
God expected Moses to see through the angry mob and inspiringly extract from deep within them the faith of their forebears and the glory of their descendants. But Moses, disappointed and disgruntled, personally devastated by their “ingratitude,” can only see a congregation of kvetching individuals, a mass of fearful and immature freedmen dancing before a Golden Calf; a Datan and an Aviram who refused to even meet with him; a disparate crowd of people who allowed themselves to become paralyzed in fear before the Canaanites.
He had lost sight of the community of Israel and could only see the assemblage of Israel; he spoke to what was in front of him instead of to their potential, the great moments and the noble individuals who comprised historic Israel and forged the Israelites in front of him. And so he became incapable of speaking with love; he could only strike out in anger. Given this attitude, Moses cannot continue to lead the nation towards the fulfillment of its historical destiny.
Many years ago, I had the unique pleasure and privilege of spending an unforgettable Sabbath with one of the great scholars of the 20th century, Rabbi Dr. Charles Chavel, z”l. I could not resist asking him how, despite the fact that he served as a rabbi of a congregation, he nevertheless found the time to be so prolific in Jewish scholarship, producing special editions of and commentaries on Rashi and Nahmanides, as well as responses to difficult Talmudic questions asked by Rabbi Akiva Eiger.
“I always had small congregations,” he told me, “small in number and sometimes even small in soul. After a difficult board meeting with Mr. Goldberg and Mrs. Schwartz, I yearned for the company of profound minds and deep perspectives. Who could be greater antidotes to small-minded and mean-spirited individuals than Nahmanides and Rabbi Akiva Eiger?”
Rabbi Chavel understood the secret; he had the capacity to look beyond the assemblage and see the community. He realized that, in the final analysis, his “small congregations” were inspired and spawned by Nahmanides and Rabbi Akiva Eiger, by Moses and Aaron, by Abraham our Father and Sarah our Mother. This is the perspective with which we must, each of us, view our present-day Jewish communities, as well!
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.