Anger is one of the least attractive emotions we can access, in our arsenal of responses to circumstances. It ranks low, with other unattractive sentiments like righteous indignation, as a most ineffective motivator of positive action.
It is, therefore, mystifying why Moses and Aaron would respond to the incident of the Waters of Contention[i] in that fashion, as described in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chukat. This was not the first time the Jewish people complained about a lack of water and thirst. The Bible, in Parshat Beshalach[ii], describes another case, almost forty years before, when the prior generation of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt had bitterly murmured about not having water to drink. G-d referred to it as the place of Testing and Strife[iii]. However, those individuals had mostly passed away and this was a new generation grown up under the tutelage of three illustrious siblings, Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
The Talmud[iv] reports they were extraordinary leaders and the Jewish people benefited mightily from their meritorious actions. Miriam’s merit accounted for the miraculous traveling well that accompanied the Jewish people on their travels through the wilderness. The supernatural security of the Clouds of Glory was based on Aaron’s merit. The Manna from heaven was due to Moses’ merit. What happened to shake the people’s confidence and make them complain to Moses and Aaron about a sudden lack of water?
It’s not coincidental that the Bible introduces this chapter with the report Miriam had just passed away[v]. The very next verse[vi] notes the lack of water and how the community gathered against Moses and Aaron. With the demise of Miriam, her miraculous well suddenly stopped functioning[vii]. Since no other provision had been made for obtaining water, the people were rightly concerned[viii] about this urgent need.
On the surface, the insensitivity of Moses and Aaron to justifiable feelings of trepidation is astounding. Indeed, a leader more attuned to the needs and expressions of the new generation might have anticipated and gotten ahead of the issue. Imagine if Moses and Aaron had and reassured the people that they were acutely aware of the situation and it would be resolved, shortly. Instead of having a contentious confrontation, it would have been virtually a non-event. Furthermore, Moses would likely not have met the tragic end he suffered, being barred from entering the Promised Land of Israel, as a result of how he handled the incident[ix].
Yet, I also can’t help but wonder about the pain and distress Moses and Aaron must have felt at the time. After all, their beloved sister had just passed away and they were in mourning. Imagine the scene; they saw a mass of people approaching. However, instead of receiving gestures of consolation and being comforted, they were confronted with complaints. It must have been distressing to realize the people had failed appropriately to eulogize Miriam[x]. Instead, they were just bemoaning the lack of water. Consider too the irony of their singular focus on the plumbing problem with Miriam’s miraculous well. Rather than wholeheartedly expressing their appreciation for Miriam’s outstanding role, including powering the traveling well with her merit, in essence, they complained her job was no longer being performed. This must have been particularly galling.
On the other hand, Moses and Aaron may also have overreacted. It was not right to denigrate people for their inappropriate remarks when they were justifiably overwrought. They too were suffering and in pain because of their acute and great need[xi] for water. Allowances should have been made because people dying of thirst and worried about the welfare of their children are understandably vulnerable and prone to uttering harsh remarks. Their assertion that it would have been better to have died like their parent’s generation before G-d[xii] must be viewed in context. As Rashi notes[xiii], a quick death is preferable to the prolonged and excruciating process of dying of thirst. It appears G-d was more forgiving of their all too human frailty than Moses, because they were not punished for their otherwise unseemly behavior[xiv].
While their statements may have been hyperbolic, they were also markedly different from the outrageous remarks made by their parents under similar circumstances, as recorded in Beshalach. Thus, the new generation asked why did Moses bring G-d’s congregation to the wilderness to die, both the people and their cattle[xv]. In contrast, their parents verbally assaulted Moses by grumbling against him and asking why he brought them out of Egypt to kill them, their children and livestock with thirst[xvi]. Grumbling, scurrilously accusing Moses of intentionally seeking to murder them and their children, regretting the Exodus from Egypt and not mentioning being servants of G-d are critical differences between the older generation’s litany and the younger generation’s petition. The children, unlike their parents, did not test G-d, by insinuating G-d was not with them[xvii]. They explicitly acknowledging they were G-d’s congregation. They just had a genuine need for water and vociferously voiced their complaints.
This was a transitional period[xviii]. In a few months time, they would enter the Promised Land of Israel and begin their new life. They would no longer have the benefit of the many overt miracles that were a daily part of their existence for the last forty years in the wilderness. They would now have to function in a more normal environment, where the laws of nature typically governed, subject however to divine providence. Weaning them from their almost addictive need for spectacular displays of divine intervention was a step-by-step process. They could no longer be passive. They had to take charge of their lives and become self-sufficient. The hidden miracles of everyday life are not always easy to discern and they also typically require some effort by the recipient. Radically and overwhelmingly changing their lifestyle all at once was not wise. The people had to be acclimated over time to their new life and taught how to cope.
The first challenge presented to them was having to deal with the lack of water. They were no longer figuratively to be spoon-fed water from Miriam’s miraculous well. Withdrawing this source of water was not meant as a punishment; it was conditioning for their new life. It was designed, in effect, to be a teachable moment[xix]. There might be times, even in a land flowing with milk and honey, when a drought might occur. The solution was not to sit back passively; rather, everyone was required to join together in heartfelt prayer for rain. This was an object lesson Moses and Aaron were meant to deliver.
Consider G-d’s direction to Moses to take the staff, assemble the community, speak to the rock before their eyes and (it will) give its water[xx]. This is in striking contrast to G-d’s instructions in Beshalach[xxi], where Moses was told just to hit the rock and water would issue from it. Now, it appeared to be all about talking to the rock; but then why was Moses instructed to take the staff along[xxii]?
There may also have been confusion about which staff G-d meant for Moses to take with him to the gathering before the rock. There was the staff he had used before[xxiii] to produce water by striking the rock. It had a storied history, including being previously been used to strike the Nile with the first plague that converted its waters to blood[xxiv]. However, there was also a second staff, known as Aaron’s staff[xxv]. It was the one that flowered and sprouted almonds, which was stored next to the Holy Ark in the Tabernacle[xxvi]. It was a symbol of peace and G-d wanted Moses to take this staff along to the gathering as a gesture of peaceful intent. It was meant figuratively to strike the appropriate chord of conciliation and not actually to strike the rock. It appears Moses took the wrong staff with him[xxvii], which precipitated a cascade of errors. This included misunderstanding the instruction concerning talking to the rock[xxviii]. Why, though, was it so important to talk to the rock? It can’t hear; so what was the point of talking to it anyway[xxix]?
Perhaps the focus on talking to a rock is misplaced. In this dramatic presentation, scripted by G-d, Moses and Aaron were directed to gather the entire community around the rock. Moses was to be armed with a wonderful prop, Aaron’s staff, which had previously been effectively used to solve strife and enable peace. He was to address the gathering before the rock. The point was to dispel any contentiousness and address the legitimate concerns voiced by the young members of the congregation with heartfelt concern, rather than rancor. Moses was to educate the new generation about how they could deal with problems like the need for water. Complaining or striving with their leaders or each other was not a useful activity or solution.
It was a teachable moment. G-d wanted Moses and Aaron to educate the new generation, who were mere children at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and had grown up in the wilderness. They had to learn to unite and positively channel their concerns, by pro-actively joining together to meet life’s challenges. This time it was an immediate need for water; at other times in the future it might be a drought. The solution to these kinds of transcendental problems was for the entire community to join together in prayer to G-d[xxx]. At other times it might be some other concern. There was power in uniting together as G-d’s servants in service of a noble higher purpose. This was a part of the process of reassuring the people that divine providence continued, even as they left the artificially secure environment of the encampment in the wilderness and were posed to enter the real world in the Land of Israel.
However, Moses and Aaron did not precisely follow the script. They were provoked by graceless, unseemly and even derisive hecklers[xxxi] and reacted harshly. Moses lost his cool[xxxii], labeling those gathered as rebellious[xxxiii] and asking sarcastically can we take water from this stone[xxxiv]. There are many explanations by Biblical commentators about what exactly went wrong[xxxv]. Whatever the cause, it appears there was a disconnect between Moses and the new generation and the results were catastrophic for Moses[xxxvi].
The incident of the Waters of Confrontation offers most cogent lessons for our contemporary times. Moses and Aaron had to deal with the feelings, perceived needs and preferences of a new generation that emerged, which was not exactly like their parents’ generation. To say we face similar challenges in our times is an understatement. This Biblical episode can inform how we might better be able to communicate our own life experience and wisdom to the new generation.
Listening with acuity, patience, avoiding being condescending and not automatically ascribing less than virtuous motives to those expressing complaints are critical. Being deliberative is also essential; it is just too easy to be dismissive and label someone as entitled. Moreover, even if this is so, it does not detract from the legitimacy of voicing a justifiable concern. Furthermore, if upon reflection, we cannot agree with a particular complaint, this does not excuse acting less than gracefully; sarcasm has no place in this milieu.
It appears that Moses and Aaron were just out of sync with the new generation. It was left to Joshua and Elazar[xxxvii] to meet these challenges head on, in practice, in the Land of Israel. Joshua had already demonstrated his sensitivity to the needs of the people and his ability to anticipate and proactively solve problems. As the Midrash[xxxviii] notes, it was he who got up early every day to set up the couches and mats in the assembly place, to assure the comfort of the listeners to Moses’ Torah lectures.
This Biblical episode also offers us another profound insight. The underlying theme is the continuing positive influence of divine providence. In a complex world, where so much is taken for granted, just take a moment to reflect on how miraculous it is when things do go right. Of course, we must do our part by trying our best. However, success is due in no small measure to the hidden miracles that are an intrinsic part of our daily life. May we continue to be so blessed.
[i] Numbers, Chapter 20.
[ii] Exodus, Chapter 17.
[iii] Exodus 17:7.
[iv] See Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit, at page 9a. See also Tosefta Sotah 11:4, as well as Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:5.
[v] Numbers 20:1.
[vi] Number 20:2.
[vii] See Rabbeinu Bachya commentary on Numbers 20:2.
[viii] See Chizkuni commentary on Numbers 20:2.
[ix] See Sifrei, paragraph 340, which ascribes this to Moses’ actions in the incident of the Waters of Contention, summarized above.
[x] See Kli Yakar commentary on Numbers 20:2. He notes, there is no reference to the people crying when Miriam passed away, as was the case when Moses and Aaron passed away.
[xi] See Ralbag commentary on Numbers 20:2.
[xii] See Numbers 20:3 and Ibn Ezra commentary thereon.
[xiii] In his commentary on Numbers 20:3.
[xiv] See Ralbag commentary on Numbers 20:2.
[xv] Numbers 20:4.
[xvi] Exodus 17:3.
[xvii] The labels applied by G-d to these two episodes are also instructive. The parent’s sinful conduct is referred to as the place of Testing and Strife, because they not only complained, they also tested G-d, questioning whether G-d was among them or not (Exodus 17:7). In contrast, the children’s complaints are referred to as the Waters of Contention, because they asserted their claim and G-d was thereby sanctified (Numbers 20:13).
[xviii] See Netziv’s Ha’amek Davar commentary on Numbers 20:5.
[xix] See Ha’amek Davar commentary on Numbers 20:8.
[xx] Numbers 20:8.
[xxi] Exodus 17:6.
[xxii] See Kli Yakar and Sforno commentaries on Numbers 20:8.
[xxiii] Exodus 17:5-6.
[xxiv] See Rashi and Nachmanides commentaries on Exodus 17:5.
[xxv] See Chizkuni commentary on Numbers 20:8.
[xxvi] See Number 17:16-25, as well as, Rashbam commentary on Number 20:8.
[xxvii] Chizkuni commentary on 20:8.
[xxviii] Ibid. Chizkuni explains that the reference in the Biblical verse to ‘the’ rock was meant to indicate it was the same rock that had served as Miriam’s miraculous traveling well.
[xxix] Ha’amek Davar commentary on Numbers 20:8.
[xxx] Daat Zekanim and Ha’amek Davar commentaries on Number 20:8.
[xxxi] See Numbers Rabbah 19:9
[xxxii] See Maimonides, Shemoneh Perakim 4:13.
[xxxiii] See Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg’s HaKtav Ve’Hakabalah commentary on Numbers 20:10, which notes that they were spoken to harshly and referred to in this degrading fashion even though they were members of G-d’s Congregation and hadn’t sinned.
[xxxiv] Numbers 20:10.
[xxxv] See excellent summary and critical analysis by the Ohr HaChaim commentary on Numbers 20:8.
[xxxvi] Deuteronomy Rabbah (2:8) describes how Moses beseeched G-d for mercy to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel or even be buried there; but to no avail. The fate of Aaron and Moses was sealed, because of their failure of leadership at the Waters of Contention (Numbers 20:24).
[xxxvii] A new generation of leadership emerged and was selected by G-d to lead the people in the next phase of crossing the Jordan River and inheriting the Land of Israel (Joshua 1:1-2). Elazar, Aaron’s son, would replace him as the head of the Kohanim (Numbers 20:26). Joshua, Moses’ disciple, would replace him as leader of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 31:14 and 23, as well as 34:9).
[xxxviii] Numbers Rabbah 21:14.