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Parshat Chukat- Balak – Life From The Inanimate

7 And the L-RD spoke unto Moses, saying: 8 ‘Take the rod, and assemble the congregation, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes, that it give forth its water; and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock; so thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink.’ 9 And Moses took the rod from before the L-RD, as He commanded him. 10 And Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said unto them: ‘Hear now, ye rebels; are we to bring you forth water out of this rock?’ 11 And Moses lifted up his hand, and smote the rock with his rod twice; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their cattle. {S} 12 And the L-RD said unto Moses and Aaron: ‘Because ye believed not in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’ (Numbers 20:7-12)

            I frequently had the experience of making mistakes on tests in school not because I did not have the requisite knowledge, but because I did not read the instructions carefully enough.  In retrospect, I usually discovered that, had I done so, I could have solved the problem in a much more streamlined way, with fewer steps, instead of the convoluted manner in which I reached the wrong conclusion anyway. In other words, the instructions were there to aid me, not to prevent me from leaving the classroom early. My wrong answers did not have such big consequences. When Moses was instructed by G-d to bring forth water from the rock, however, his “answer” brought a most disastrous—and ironic—consequence. He was denied entry into the land of Israel.

            But that is not what I want to address now.

            It is true that G-d simply said, “speak to the rock”, and not “hit the rock”. Yet, one might ask, “if G-d did not want Moses to hit the rock, why did He tell him to ‘take the stick’?” Hitting the rock was, after all, a perfectly legitimate means of accessing the water the previous time.

            This question was asked by the Malbim (loc. cit.). He answers that, we have to first take notice of the fact that the word for “stick”, “mateh” is preceded by a grammatical device called the ה’ הידיעה, the “heh hayedi’ah”. The heh hayedi’ah is similar to the definite article “the” in English, but it has a stronger connotation, like, “the one and only”. G-d said, “take the stick”, indicating a particular stick. If we look through the text from Exodus until this point, we only find one stick called, “the stick”, and it is not the same stick that Moses used to herald the miracles in Egypt or the splitting of the sea. It is the staff of Aaron, which, when placed side by side with the staffs of the other tribal heads, had bloomed with flowers and almonds. This was G-d’s way of showing the people that the priesthood only belonged to the family of Aaron, after the attempt by Korach and his adherents to take over the priesthood.

            In this instance, the stick had a different message. The be’er, a flowing well of water, had accompanied the Israelites through the desert in the merit of Miriam. When Miriam left the world, the be’er disappeared, and the enormous, rolling chalamish-stone that contained it reverted back to being a monolith. Hence the complaints for water. Therefore, to allay any concerns that the miracle could not be performed twice, G-d told Moses to bring the flowering staff with him when he spoke to the rock, to indicate to all that bringing forth life from inanimate objects was not beyond G-d’s power; just as He “turned the rock into a lake of water, the chalamish into a spring of water” (Psalms 114:8), He could do this again, but this time, merely through the words of Moses—no action required. This was an opportunity to strengthen the faith of the people above and beyond any previous level. When Moses struck the rock, the opportunity was missed. That is not to say that the bringing forth of the water—even in a manner that contradicted the instructions of G-d—was not a sign of the merit of Moses and Aaron. The gemara itself tells us that, although the be’er existed in Miriam’s merit, the merit of Moses and Aaron brought it back (Ta’anit 9a).

            I think the message of the staff (and of the rock) is important here. Sometimes, we allow ourselves to become like dead wood, and our heads and hearts like rock. But we should remember that no matter how far gone we think we are, or how old and set in our ways, G-d’s salvation extends to all living, and a total paradigm shift is always possible. With faith, we can bloom again, and replace the “heart of stone” with a “heart of flesh” (see Ezekiel 36:26).


By Rabbi Tani Burton

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