Making sense of the sedra: Chukat

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Making sense of the sedra: Chukat

In our thought-provoking series, rabbis, rebbetzins and educators relate the week's parsha to the way we live today

Moses hitting the rock
Moses hitting the rock

Moshe is undoubtedly one of the most exceptional leaders history has known. Throughout his years as the leader of the not-so-easy-people that is Israel, he manages to guide them through everything. In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, however, an uncharacteristic outburst of impatience leads Moshe to hit the rock he was instructed to talk to. God, as a result, tells him in no uncertain terms that he has lost his right to lead the Jewish people into Israel, “because you did not trust me enough”. This is a devastating blow for a leader who has fought for his people’s journey through all the ups and downs.

An interesting angle on this episode and why God uses such uncertain terms when punishing Moshe is provided by the Ohr Hachaim (Morocco, 18th century), who quotes the Midrash Bamidbar Rabba (19:12), which sheds yet another light on Moshe’s leadership.

When Moshe received word of his punishment from God, he made a quick calculation. If he were to die in the desert, he would be buried with all the people who had died there over the 40 years as a result of believing the gossip of the spies and rebelling against God. In future generations, this could lead to the incorrect conclusion that Moshe had also believed the words of the spies and had agreed with them, and that he, too, had been a rebel. If the leader of the Jewish people had been placed in the same category as the rebels, the scandal would have been enormous. So Moshe pleaded with God to write in very clear words why he was punished and buried in the desert. Despite the shame of picking apart the details of his inglorious moment of impatience, Moshe the individual was prepared to be embarrassed in order to save the good name of Moshe the servant of God, leader of the Jewish people.

One of the primary accolades given to Moshe is his humility (Bamidbar 12:3). The above explanation lends more colour to that characteristic and brings it alive. Moshe’s humility meant that his whole existence was in service of God and his people. If that meant experiencing some shame, he not only took it, he begged for it!

So often in life, our motive is what other people (might) think. Moshe, whose leadership extends to this day and age, shows us how to put that into perspective. He was prepared to be embarrassed in the short term, in order to save God’s name in the long term. When all we care about is what other people think in the short term, we end up losing ourselves in the long term. Yet, when we put ourselves in service of the greater good and use that as our yardstick for success, despite the short-term discomfort it might bring, we set ourselves apart and become leaders of our own kind.

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