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Speak softly and carry a big stick.
– Theodore Roosevelt
At the heart of this week’s reading is one of the most troubling incidents in the Torah.
After the death of Moses’ sister, Miriam, the people once again turn against Moses and Aaron, clamoring for water (20:7–13). “If only we had died in the Presence of God, as our brethren did!” they rail — referring to those who died with Korach.
God instructs Moses to take Aaron’s staff from its place in the Tabernacle – where it sprouted almond blossoms after Korach’s rebellion – and to gather the people together. “Speak to the rock before their eyes, so that it shall give its waters” (20:8). This designation of a specific rock — “speak to the rock” — leads the Midrash to the mystical notion of Miriam’s well, a boulder that rolled along with the Israelites on their journeys, and that opened to give them water when they camped. Miriam, whose name contains the Hebrew word for “sea,” is identified with water, with nourishment and with the survival of the nation. When we meet her in the book of Exodus she watches over her brother from the bank of the Nile, arranging for their own mother to nurse him. But now Miriam dies, and the people are left without water. Moses and Aaron are not Miriam. Without their sister they are helpless and their leadership is defective.
It is a wonder that Moses, who comes on the scene protesting his lack of verbal ability, has done nothing but speak since he returned to his people enslaved in Egypt. “I am not a man of words,” he protests at the burning bush. There, God reassures Moses that Aaron will do the talking; yet the Torah gives Aaron not one memorable speech, and the one passage which most characterizes Aaron is his stunning, deliberate silence after the death of his two sons. Now God has bidden Moses and Aaron to speak together, to show that their words can fulfill the needs of the people. Moses takes the staff, but he doesn’t wait for Aaron to speak. Instead of speaking to the rock, Moses excoriates the people: “Listen, you rebels! Do you expect us to bring forth water for you from this rock?” (20:10). He then lifts the staff and strikes the rock twice, whereupon water gushes forth.
“Because you two did not believe in Me and sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel,” says God to Moses and Aaron, “therefore you will not bring this community into the land that I have given to them.” This failure to adhere to the letter of God’s instruction causes Moses and Aaron to be barred from entering the Promised Land. In fact, Aaron dies shortly thereafter, and his son Elazar is invested as High Priest.
Did Moses really not understand God’s command? God commanded Moses to strike a rock with the staff in an earlier episode — could Moses be confusing his orders now? What was so bad about what Moses did that he should not be permitted to enter the land? And what is Aaron’s sin? Aaron did nothing — but neither did he speak.
Two weeks ago we read the story of the spies – the collapse of the nation just as they are about to take possession of the land promised by God. Moses’ leadership and the leadership structure of the newly-formed Jewish nation implode in disastrous failure. Seeing the people’s disarray, and their rejection of the land that was promised them, God withdraws both the promise of the land, and the guarantee of divine protection. At the end of the episode of the spies, the Israelites — abandoned by their leaders and by God — are far worse off than ever they were in Egypt.
The episode of the spies contains tragic echoes of the expulsion from Eden: Israel saw the promised fruit and refused it, parallel to Adam’s seeing the forbidden fruit and taking it. As a result, both lost the sacred Land — Adam to expulsion, the Israelites to be condemned to forty years of wandering. Following the tragedy of the spies, the story of Korach revisits themes of Noah and the Flood. The Flood begins not with rain, but with the eruption of a deluge from underground. “On that day, all the springs of the mighty deep were burst apart, and the windows of the sky were opened” (Gen. 7:11). The flood waters come first from the earth splitting open, and only afterward do the rains begin to fall. One of the keywords in the portion of Noah is “name” — in Hebrew, shem. It appears several times; and Shem is also the name of one of Noah’s sons, the ancestor of Abraham and the name from which the word Semite is derived. The builders of the city and the tower of Babel say (Gen. 11:4) “Let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its head in the heavens, and let’s make a name [Shem] for ourselves so we will not be scattered across the earth.” In a key literary echo, the two hundred and fifty leaders of Israel who gather with Korach to challenge Moses and Aaron are described as “Princes of the community, those called to conference, men of name…” (16:2).
The book of Genesis opens with God expecting Creation to follow divine intent. But free choice and appetite soon intervene. By the mechanism of choice, and by humans’ inability to envision the consequences of our actions, God’s program crumbles and God’s sadness, God’s anger and regret lead to the decision to destroy the world. At the end of Noah’s watery ordeal, God recognizes that human nature will not change: we will never go from being imperfect to being perfect. We will always be ruled by our impulses and appetites. The best we will ever attain is a desire to try to improve, and even that will often falter. Perhaps a pathetic outcome, from God’s perspective. But having set this game in motion, God decides to play it out according to its own rules.
This, then, is what Moses faces. Like God facing first Adam, then Noah, Moses has had two tries at creating a perfect nation. He deputized the heads of the tribes to spy out the land, giving each of them one part of his own authority. Not only did they fail the test, they refused the earthly paradise and destroyed the world that Moses had so carefully worked to create. The confrontation with Korach is born of desire to take that which belongs to others. The Flood is brought because “the world had become corrupt in God’s presence and the world was full of theft.” Like the generation of the Flood, Korach and his followers try to snatch what is not given to them. Like the builders of the Tower, Korach’s followers are concerned with their name. Like all of them, they suffer the consequences of acting out of their passions, and not out of considering their place in the greater picture.
In response to all this, does Moses in fact sin? For all that has been written on this passage, the commentaries offer little that is definitive. On the face of it, Moses has reverted to type. We should not be surprised. When God first appears to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3–4), God tells him, Go and speak to Pharaoh, whereupon Moses says, “I am not a man of words, and I have never been. I am heavy of mouth and slow of speech” (3:10). Indeed, when we meet Moses as an adult, the very first thing we see him do is to kill a man without speaking a word (Ex. 2:11–12). Moses sees the Egyptian beating an Israelite; he looks about and sees no one, and he strikes the Egyptian and buries him in the sand.
This is Moses, the man who acts. Acts impulsively. Acts, as is spelled out in subsequent passages, to protect the weak from abuse by the strong. But the point is that he acts; he does not speak. He is telling God a deep truth about himself when he says, “I am not a man of words.” Much of the book of Numbers is made up of scenes where Moses’ leadership is challenged, where he himself is fed up and ready to quit. It seems that at this point, with the Israelites clamoring for water yet again, Moses’ famous patience snaps. God tells him, speak to them. In the desperation of the moment, Moses’ frustration boils over. And in that moment, a life’s work is shattered. Moses loses control and lashes out physically. In a jarring depiction of a man tragically aware that he has just committed an irretrievable breach, Moses strikes the rock not once, but twice. The sad image of a man who recognizes an instant too late that he has destroyed something infinitely precious. The first blow was Moses throwing away all he has struggled to create; the second is a blow of defeat, acknowledging that he has brought his own life to ruin.
If we are honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that we often do things that are against our own deepest principles. We try to justify it by saying it is our nature, but as the Hasidic rabbis teach, every human being is composed of an animal soul and a divine soul; raw urges clash with a longing for transcendence. They must learn to live together both in the fecund darkness of our beating heart, and in the clarity of our mind.When we fearlessly explore our own animal nature, we create the possibility of understanding ourselves — even of having compassion for ourselves. And we open a door to understanding and compassion for one another. In this way, we too can make for ourselves a name.
Nachmanides observes that the rock is impervious to being struck. But, he says, it is equally impervious to being spoken to. It’s merely a rock. This begs the question: Why does God instruct Moses to speak to it? Perhaps God, knowing that Moses is near the breaking point, is reminding Moses to calm down before acting. After all, even God had to destroy the world in order to learn that there is no end to the need for patience.
Yours for a better world.