Parashat Hukkat: The pitfalls of leadership

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Parshat Chukat includes a number of inexplicable things, including the hok par excellence—the Law of the Red Heifer, a mysterious ritual that cleanses a person of the impurity of being in the presence of the dead. On a simplistic level, a hok is a decree enacted by a higher authority, in contrast to a mishpat which is an ordinance that is in accordance with human values. The ritual of the Red Heifer is not rational, and yet, its observance is defined in great detail. It has been held up by many as the example of the supra-rational observance.

But there is something else in our parashah that seems to defy explanation, at least at first glance. We read that the wandering tribes reached a place where there was no food nor water. And something extraordinary takes place.

The congregation had no water; so they assembled against Moshe and Aaron.
וְלֹא־הָ֥יָה מַ֖יִם לָֽעֵדָ֑ה וַיִּקָּ֣הֲל֔וּ עַל־משֶׁ֖ה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹֽן:

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Israelites had faced such a situation. And, as in previous cases. God tells Moshe to take up his staff of office—the same staff that he used at the very outset of his role—and “go fix it”:

“Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.”
קַ֣ח אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֗ה וְהַקְהֵ֤ל אֶת־הָֽעֵדָה֙ אַתָּה֙ וְאַֽהֲרֹ֣ן אָחִ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתֶּ֧ם אֶל־הַסֶּ֛לַע לְעֵֽינֵיהֶ֖ם וְנָתַ֣ן מֵימָ֑יו וְהֽוֹצֵאתָ֙ לָהֶ֥ם מַ֨יִם֙ מִן־הַסֶּ֔לַע וְהִשְׁקִיתָ֥ אֶת־הָֽעֵדָ֖ה וְאֶת־בְּעִירָֽם:
Moshe took the staff from before the Eternal as He had commanded him.
וַיִּקַּ֥ח משֶׁ֛ה אֶת־הַמַּטֶּ֖ה מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּֽהוּ:
Moshe and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?”
וַיַּקְהִ֜לוּ משֶׁ֧ה וְאַֽהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַקָּהָ֖ל אֶל־פְּנֵ֣י הַסָּ֑לַע וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם שִׁמְעוּ־נָא֙ הַמֹּרִ֔ים הֲמִן־הַסֶּ֣לַע הַזֶּ֔ה נוֹצִ֥יא לָכֶ֖ם מָֽיִם:
Moshe raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.
וַיָּ֨רֶם משֶׁ֜ה אֶת־יָד֗וֹ וַיַּ֧ךְ אֶת־הַסֶּ֛לַע בְּמַטֵּ֖הוּ פַּֽעֲמָ֑יִם וַיֵּֽצְאוּ֙ מַ֣יִם רַבִּ֔ים וַתֵּ֥שְׁתְּ הָֽעֵדָ֖ה וּבְעִירָֽם:

A happy ending, no? As on previous occasions, the people clamored for help in a crisis, and God brought about a miracle for them. And yet, this time was different.

The Eternal said to Moshe and Aaron, “Because you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶל־משֶׁ֣ה וְאֶל־אַֽהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶֽאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֨יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם:

And to drive the point home…

These are the waters of dispute [Mei Merivah] where the children of Israel contended with the Lord, and He was sanctified through them.
הֵ֚מָּה מֵ֣י מְרִיבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־רָב֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־יְהֹוָ֑ה וַיִּקָּדֵ֖שׁ בָּֽם:

But what did Moshe do wrong? And why so harsh a punishment? Hadn’t he been told to take the staff along and “bring forth water from the rock”?

Where did Moshe go wrong?

Commentators have been at pains to explain just what Moshe’s sin was. Rashi says that it was that he struck the stone instead of only speaking to it, as God had instructed. But of course, this doesn’t really answer the question of why striking the rock was the wrong thing to do.

In many places in the Torah, we find that a particular episode dialogs with a similar story told elsewhere in the text. This incident too, speaks to a parallel narrative told earlier, in Sh’mot (17:5-7). In that instance, Moshe struck the rock to bring forth water, and nothing was said about this being the wrong thing to do.

The Eternal said to Moshe, “Pass before the people and take with you [some] of the elders of Israel. Take into your hand your staff, with which you struck the Nile, and go.
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה’ אֶל־משֶׁ֗ה עֲבֹר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם וְקַ֥ח אִתְּךָ֖ מִזִּקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּמַטְּךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר הִכִּ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ אֶת־הַיְאֹ֔ר קַ֥ח בְּיָֽדְךָ֖ וְהָלָֽכְתָּ:
See, I shall stand there before you on the rock in Horeb, and you shall strike the rock, and water will come out of it, and the people will drink.” Moshe did so before the eyes of the elders of Israel.
הִנְנִ֣י עֹמֵד֩ לְפָנֶ֨יךָ שָּׁ֥ם | עַל־הַצּוּר֘ בְּחֹרֵב֒ וְהִכִּ֣יתָ בַצּ֗וּר וְיָֽצְא֥וּ מִמֶּ֛נּוּ מַ֖יִם וְשָׁתָ֣ה הָעָ֑ם וַיַּ֤עַשׂ כֵּן֙ משֶׁ֔ה לְעֵינֵ֖י זִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
He named the place Massah [testing] and Merivah [quarreling] because of the quarrel of the children of Israel and because of their testing the Eternal, saying, Is the Eternal in our midst or not?
וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֔וֹם מַסָּ֖ה וּמְרִיבָ֑ה עַל־רִ֣יב | בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְעַ֨ל נַסֹּתָ֤ם אֶת־יְהֹוָה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר הֲיֵ֧שׁ ה’ בְּקִרְבֵּ֖נוּ אִם־אָֽיִן:

Here, God explicitly tells Moshe to strike the rock in front of the people’s representatives.  What’s more, here it is the people who are depicted as not believing that God was in their midst. So what is different in our parashah?

The Rambam (Maimonides) gives another explanation: Moshe lost his temper, and said, “Listen now, you rebels.” But Moshe had said worse things to, and about, the people elsewhere.

Of course, one could argue that Moshe simply failed to follow instructions; he was told to speak to the rock, and instead, he struck it. But was that error enough to condemn Moshe (and Aharon, who had nothing to do with it!) to death in the wilderness?

The Ramban (Nahmanides) points out these weaknesses of the previous explanations: God told Moshe to take along his staff, implying that he was supposed to strike the stone (as in the parallel story in Exodus). And of course, there are other occasions where Moshe is portrayed in a fit of temper (cf. BaMidbar 31:14), and we don’t find that he was punished for it. In addition, our parashah explicitly states that Moshe was punished for a lack of trust—not disobedience or anger. Nachmanides explains that the problem here is that Moshe said, “Shall we get you water out of this rock?” when he should have attributed the miracle solely to God.

Only one problem: God explicitly said to Moshe that he (Moshe) is to bring forth water from the rock: “You shall bring forth water from the rock”. So where exactly did Moshe go wrong?

Kiddush Hashem and the public good

A midrash provides a hint of the answer:

To what may this be compared? To the case of a king who had a friend. Now this friend displayed arrogance towards the king privately, using harsh words. The king, however, did not lose his temper with him. After a time he arose and displayed his arrogance in the presence of his legions, and the king passed a sentence of death upon him. So also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe: “The first offence that you committed was a private matter between you and Me. Now, however, that it is done in the presence of the public, it is impossible to overlook it.” Thus it says: “[Because you did not sanctify Me] in the eyes of the children of Israel.” (Midrash Rabbah 19:10)
 וכי לא אמר דבר קשה מזה שאמר (במדבר יא, כב) “הצאן ובקר ישחט להם ומצא להם אם את כל דגי הים יאסף להם ומצא להם” אף שם אין אמנה והיא גדולה מזו מפני מה לא גזר עליו שם למה”ד למלך שהיה לו אוהב והיה מגיס בינו לבין המלך בדברים קשים ולא הקפיד המלך עליו לימים עמד והגיס במעמד לגיונות גזר עליו מיתה אף כך אמר לו הקב”ה למשה הראשונה שעשית ביני לבינך עכשיו כנגד הרבים אי אפשר שנאמר “להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל“: (מדרש רבה יט:י)

This then is the heart of the matter. In the parallel story, Moshe struck the rock in front of the chosen representatives of the people. It was a private matter, for their eyes only. They could be trusted to understand that Moshe was not himself working a miracle, but that God was doing the heavy lifting.

But in our parashah, the entire assembly is watching. Had Moshe merely spoken to the rock, as he’d been told, only those closest to him would have heard him. To those standing further off, it would simple seem as if when Moshe approached the rock, water came out of it. Because he was their representative, it would look like the rock was giving water for them. The people—all of them, not just the elders—would see that neither Moshe, nor his staff, is performing magic, and would attribute the miracle to God alone.

But Moshe loses patience and hits the rock with the staff, thereby teaching exactly the opposite lesson. Even those farther away see water spurt out of the rock, seemingly as a result of Moshe’s forceful action. By setting up a situation where his people see him as a magician, Moshe has set himself up to be worshiped. The elders may understand what really happened, but there will inevitably be superstitious types who want only to find a miracle-worker to follow.

And so, Moshe’s punishment is that he will die in the desert, and not enter the land of Israel. He will have no marked grave that could become a shrine and the center of a cult. The punishment fits the crime, and mitigates the impact of Moshe’s mistake.

Leadership lessons

Some important lessons come from the dialog of this story with the parallel one in Exodus:

  • Leaders are judged by their actions, and must be aware not only of what they do, but also what people will take away from their example. They must act in such a way that their actions lift people up, rather than giving them excuses for base behavior. Actions matter!
  • A good leader knows how to play to the people in the back rows. What looks like a miracle to those in the front row, looks like magic to those in the back rows. Perspective matters!
  • And, of course, a leader is to be held accountable for his or her actions, and the greater the leader, the more harshly he will be held to account. The more people look to you as their leader, the more you can influence people for good or evil. Reputation matters!

In the end, Moshe did not teach the lesson that he was called upon to teach in that moment. Instead, God stepped in and provided the lesson more directly. And there’s surely a lesson in that!

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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