PINCHAS. Three Million Secrets

Some of my most memorable teaching moments have been when tutoring geirim (converts-elect to Judaism). There are few more satisfying experiences than to be a catalyst in the fashioning of new Jewish neshamot (souls).

Often when tutoring couples, even where both are converting, one partner is dominant. This frequently manifests when teaching k’ria (Hebrew reading). I am on the look-out whenever one partner (usually but not always the male) attempts to “jump in” when I am seeking to assess the other!

When this started to happen with a recent couple, I thought: here we go …he wants to prove how good he is! However in this case I could not have been more wrong.  The gentleman in question (and what a gentleman!) explained to me that he was concerned only about his partner’s possible embarrassment. “She is the smartest person I know!” he told me, “and she doesn’t want to appear dumb when we’re reading, so I jump in to save her blushes!”

Which goes to show how over-hasty and generic one can be in one’s snap judgements!

In this week’s Sidra, G-D instructs Moses to prepare for his ultimate passage, reminding him how he “rebelled against My word   ….[failing to] sanctify Me ….at Mei Meriva, the waters of strife at Kadesh” (Num 27:14), thereby forfeiting the privilege of leading the people into Erets Yisrael.

Moses’ immediate response wows us, notwithstanding that we know him to be “the most self-effacing person to walk the face of the globe” (12:3). Let G-D, the G-d of the sprits of all flesh, appoint a [new] leader over the assembly ….so that the community of Israel be not like sheep without a shepherd.

We know only too well how grief-stricken Moses is over the decree.  Later he is to plead passionately with G-D over and over to allow him to enter Erets Yisrael just to see “the good land”.

But here we see that his overriding consideration is for his flock.

Most fascinating of all is the phrase Moses uses to address G-D – “the G-d of the spirits of all flesh”.

How Moshe Rabeinu must have ruminated on his fatal error at Kadesh in becoming agitated with the people and deviating from G-D’s command to speak to the rock, striking it instead (20:9-11).

Our major commentators do not dwell on the emotional state of the nation at this last water-deprivation test prior to entering the Land.  However they do make it clear that although Moses became impatient with Bnei Yisrael, G-D was not unduly upset with the people. As the author of Ohr haChaim declares, G-D is patient with those who have a legitimate complaint even when it is voiced with more vehemence than is necessary. And after all this was the nation who for 37 long years had not kvetched at all, obediently and willingly journeying and encamping “by the word of G-D” (9:18-23).  Maybe it is for this reason that G-D had instructed Moses to speak to the rock – the gentle, patient approach – rather than to strike it.

Reading further between the lines: it is significant that the brief narration of the Mei Meriva incident presents three different words for Bnei Yisrael: (1) ha-eida (the assembly); (2) ha-am (the people); and (3) ha-kahal (the congregation).

May we suggest that these three different epithets may be alluding to three different mindsets driving Bnei Yisrael at this time: (1) There were those whose emotions were dominated and governed by the pain of their severe thirst. (2) There was a second group who, despite the tenor of their complaints, did not actually want the ‘nanny-state’ wilderness years to end, were terrified of the prospect of making their own way in a new land and were complaining in the hope that they may be granted a further detention period (yes, sometimes people state the opposite of what they mean!)  (3) There was yet a third exalted group who were bemoaning the stagnation in Torah that they felt was going to set in as they prepared to devote their energies to conquest and husbandry of the Land – water being a symbol and synonym for Torah. Maybe there were further sub-groups and sub-sub-groups each with their own motive for raising their voice at this time. And indeed, inasmuch as no two people think in exactly the same way, there may have been 600,000 individual voices (the women and children didn’t complain) each seeking validation for the welter of emotions stirring up inside them as they prepared for the challenge of the Promised Land.

This is why Moses needed to address the rock with words. Words separate into sound-particles, are clothed with variegated nuance and are capable of myriad interpretations. (See my essay Scotched On The Rocks in The Cosmic Diamond for a detailed exposition on how Moses was required to draw mayim, water, from a sela, rock, through speech.) These words, powerfully and sensitively articulated, would have touched every one of his three million listeners (the 600,000 men and their families) on a personal level!

But Moses failed to do this.  Instead he struck the rock twice (20:11). No nuance, no variegation, no individualisation could possibly come forth from these mighty whacks!

The consequence of this massive failure, on Moses’ exalted level, was the termination of his Divine mission. Tragically too late, Moses grasps the enormity of his error of judgement and of what he could have achieved otherwise.

Now, having ruminated on his error, Moses calls upon “the G-D of the spirits of all flesh” to set a new leader over the nation. In the perceptive words of the Midrash Tanchuma (cited by Rashi), a leader “who can recognise and relate to each individual according to his psyche” since einan domin zeh la-zeh, “no two persons resemble each other”.

Albeit belatedly, Moshe Rabeinu pellucidly recognises his error when he had summarily and hastily struck a rock to extract water rather than utilising variegated nuances of speech to address the individual, water- (or Torah-)related needs of three million people.

One of the most extraordinary b’rakhot our Sages composed –and probably the rarest too – is the blessing recited on seeing 600,000 or more Jews together: Barukh Ata HaShem ….Chacham HaRazim. Blessed are You, G-D, sagacious Knower of Secrets.

 G-D knows all souls and their secrets. He is “the G-D of the spirits of all flesh”. The 600,000 heads of household in the midbar plus their families, numbering more than three million. The fifteen million Jewish souls today. Each with their impenetrable secrets!  Each deliciously unpredictable.  Each delectably different!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation
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