Rainforests of paper have likely been consumed, through the ages, writing about the nature of Moses’ transgression. It’s not immediately obvious from the reading of the text. But that’s one of the great things about learning Torah. It is rich, deep, and multi-faceted. If you think you understand it straight away, then most likely you do not. Fortunately, with modern media, I can add my voice to the chorus without expending even a sheet of paper.
Just to recap. The Jewish People complain that they have no water. God tells Moses to speak to the rock and water will emerge. Moses gets angry and calls the people mutineers, then strikes the rock with his staff (as opposed to speaking to it) and water indeed emerges. God immediately responds to Moses that ‘since you did not believe in me, you will not enter the land of Canaan’. A story for the ages – in only twelve sentences (unlike Dickens, God was not paid by the page).
There is a lot to unpack in this story, but I’m going to focus on one point. Moses may have been right that the Jewish People were terribly wrong to complain about the lack of water. God has given you water in the desert for forty years. It’s gone for one day and instead of politely requesting, you come and protest bitterly, full of entitlement?
Granted, Moses was at the end of his tether. Let’s see you try leading the stiff-necked Children of Israel for forty years through a wilderness. Nevertheless, his response was wrong. And part of that mistake, in my mind, was that he listened to their words, not their feeling. Their words were words of complaint and rebellion; they were abusive. But the feeling was one of fear and insecurity. The water had dried up, they were thirsty, in the middle of a desert, with two million bodies to hydrate. They were looking oblivion square in the eye. And, for all their lofty belief in God and commitment to serve, their humanity rose to the surface. Raw instinct overcame known truths and their fear bubbled over. They were not rebelling; they were just afraid. And, had Moses look at that very human feeling, instead of looking at the response it elicited, he might have felt compassion, rather than anger.
This is true so often in our own lives. How often do we look at, and judge, the behaviour of those around us, instead of seeing the humanity that is behind it. We almost always see the humanity in children – and don’t judge them for it. But, for some reason, we expect more of adults. And bless them, adults usually meet our expectations. But there are times that they do not. As indeed, we are guilty of ourselves on occasion. Instead of being impressed that this is a failing amongst great success, we get upset and annoyed – as did Moses. Instead of seeing the Godliness and overlooking the humanity, we forget the Godliness and judge them for their humanity. Shame on us. No, shame for us. Because when we live in judgement, we are the ones who miss out. As indeed did Moses. If the failures of Children of Israel were to be at the forefront of his mind, he could not share with them the success of entering the Land of Canaan.
Parsha in a Nutshell
The first portion begins with the ritual of the red heifer – an offering related to the spiritual impurity of a dead body. Although challenging to understand, it is not un-understandable per se. The ritual is replete with meaning – but beyond the scope of this davar.
Miriam dies and there is no water. The Jews immediately revert to character and begin to complain. Moses brings water from a rock, but in doing so, his subtle, but significant, mistake is responded to with the decree that he will not enter the land of Canaan. The Jewish people complain now about the mannah. Snakes attack the camp but are warded off by Moses’ timely intervention. Aaron dies and the Jewish people are set upon by various nations who they defeat.
In the second portion, Balaam, a Moabite, is granted a level of prophecy equal to that of Moses. He is an intriguing character ‑ honour driven, arrogant, money chasing and narcissistic. The world doesn’t change that much.
Balak, the king of Moab, seeing that conventional methods have not worked, decides to hire Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Balaam accepts the assignment. God allows Balaam to go with Balak, but Balaam does warn Balak that he will only be able to say that which God allows him to. Three times Balaam tries to curse the Jewish People and three times God places prophetic blessings in his mouth instead. His prophecies are some of the most poetic and beautiful parts of the whole Torah. The whole story is well worth a read.