Parshat Hukkat: Two strikes and Moses is out

Even Moses was human. And thank G-d for that. Because we have only one G-d, and heaven forefend that we deify flesh and blood.

What is it that makes us human?  For one thing we humans all make mistakes.  And the Torah is unsparing when it comes to cataloguing the errors, crimes and misdemeanors of our greats.  Indeed, it is this that shows how great they were – human beings, capable of peccadillos small and large, transcending their human condition to accomplish nearly superhuman feats.

What else makes us human?  The fact that we age.  And with the onset of old age not only does our energy ebb, but often our patience and our capacity to judge situations clearly.  Indeed, in our advanced years we earn the right to evaporate from center stage, and are obligated to pass the baton on to a new generation of leaders who are neither exhausted mentally and physically, nor rigidly rooted in ways and means that are no longer suited to contemporary needs.

In Deuteronomy 34:7 we are told that “Moses was 120 years old when he died, his eyes were not dim nor his strength weakened.” Yet, while this is declared regarding his physical condition, the Torah paints a somewhat different picture regarding his temperament in old age. And we enter the para-Christian precincts of hagiography at our own peril. Because doing so robs us of realistic role models, and sets benchmarks that are impossible to achieve.

Parshat Hukkat tells the story of Moses smiting the rock. For this ‘crime’, both he and Aaron were punished by being denied permission to lead the People of Israel into the Land of Israel.

Following the death and burial of Miriam, the Children of Israel once again rise up against their leaders Moses and Aaron.

“And there was no water for the community, and they gathered against Moses and Aaron.” (Numbers 20:2)

As Yogi Berra would say; “déjà vu all over again”.

Only this time the mob expresses itself far more spiritually, as this takes place toward the end of their sojourn in the wilderness, long after the Exodus from Egypt.  Now they refer to themselves as “Kahal Ado-nai” — the congregation of the Lord” (20:4), progress indeed.

G-d instructs Moses to “Take your rod and gather the community, you and your brother Aaron, and the two of you should speak to the rock before their eyes, and it will give of its water… And Moses took the rod from before G-d as he had commanded him.” (20:8-9).

But now Moses cracks and begins to show his true feelings: “And Moses and Aaron gathered the congregation at the face of the rock and said unto them; ‘Listen all your rebels, shall we bring forth for you water from this rock?’“(20:10). Moses is going beyond what he was authorized to do.  He resorts to name-calling as he sarcastically vents his rage at the assembled people.

“And Moses raised his hand and with his rod and he struck the rock twice, and much water came forth, and the community and its cattle drank.” (20:11)

Interestingly, the text goes into the detail of Moses “raising his hand” an act that is intended to humiliate even before it causes injury.

And for this seemingly minor violation, both Moses and Aaron are punished by G-d: “… because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” (20:12).

Such draconian punishment; denying Moses and Aaron the right to lead a victorious Israel into the Promised Land — for what? For having struck the rock instead of speaking to it.

Conventional wisdom tells us that small infractions are greatly magnified when made by great people.  And this sounds pretty clever, yet it is hardly convincing.  If the Lord exacts such retribution from his most loyal servants, surely we ordinary mortals can only despair.

Clearly the decision to prevent Moses and Aaron from entering Eretz Israel is not simply a punishment.  It is, if you will, an executive decision based on the fact that these two aged leaders are no longer qualified to lead – certainly to lead the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel.

But what was it they did that made G-d decide it was time for them to go?

Was it the fact that Moses struck the rock?


It was the fact that he struck the rock twice – and both times in a manner meant to humiliate rather than injure – and insult is infinitely worse than injury.

After all, who was Moses hitting?  It wasn’t the rock. It was the Children of Israel.  The rock was merely their proxy. Moses was slapping the Jewish People in the face. And for this there is no excuse.

Yes, it happens that a teacher strikes his pupil in the heat of momentary rage and frustration.  This is inexcusable, but can be rectified with an apology on the teacher’s part. Indeed after a single slap, such an apology proves not only that the teacher is human but that he can correct himself.

But what often happens when a teacher loses his temper and resorts to physical humiliation? The child, rather than give him the satisfaction of breaking down in tears just stands there smarting. Now the teacher really takes offense, and strikes the child yet again.  With this second slap the child is lost forever.  He will never be able to respect, let alone revere, that teacher. Fear? Perhaps. Respect? Never! And it is likely this child has just lost all love and respect for Torah. This child has become a write-off to the Jewish People.

When Moses slapped the Israelites by way of the rock, he should have stopped and apologized.  And if he didn’t do this of his own accord, his brother Aaron should have stayed his hand and brought him back to his senses. Indeed Aaron, the “lover of peace and the pursuer of peace” (ohev shalom v’rodef shalom) should have calmed Moses down when he first spoke disparagingly to the Children of Israel.

Yet, neither brother rose to the occasion.  A second strike ensued, and from that moment on the Children of Israel no longer recognized Moses as their leader.  The damage could not be undone. Hence G-d finds it necessary to conclude the lives of both Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.

Later on, in Deuteronomy, we see ample evidence that Moses has slipped precipitously into the cantankerousness that often accompanies old age.  He oscillates between singing his People’s praises and blaming them for all his misfortunes.  In last week’s parsha the story of the meraglim, the spies, is recorded in a crisp narrative. G-d orders a reconnaissance mission that ultimately turns sour.  In Deuteronomy, however, we will see Moses blaming it all on the Children of Israel. He is incapable of seeing his own faults and recognizing his own role in these events. He is bitter, and he revises history in order to justify his bitterness.

The lesson to us is clear.  Age alone does not qualify one for leadership.  And, indeed, age can often be the best reason to abdicate leadership. Yet we now live in a time when the single overriding criteria for ‘greatness’ in traditional Jewish society is seniority.  If a rabbi reaches the age of 99 or 103 he becomes ipso facto infallible even if he is incoherent, unavailable, detached from reality.  He becomes surrounded by self-serving panderers who put words into his mouth, and issue proclamations and dicta in his name that are questionable at best, and destructive at worst.

G-d decides to sideline Moses and Aaron, not as a punishment but primarily because the time had come, and they showed no signs of voluntary retirement.  Were they to enter the Promised Land, the Children of Israel would be effectively leaderless, and predators would attach themselves to these anachronisms and make a huge mess.

We are all human. And there comes a time when we just have to let go.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
Related Topics
Related Posts