PARSHAT HUKAT

MOSES’ PUNISHMENT

“Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’”  (Numbers 20:10)

            God punishes Moses (and his brother Aaron).  They will lead the Israelites across the desert for forty years.  But in the end, they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land.   Moses views the Promised Land from a distant mountain, but he will never set foot in it.  Why such a harsh punishment?

            The story is told in this week’s portion.   Miriam has died and with her death, the people no longer have water.  According to the Midrashic tradition, Miriam had a miraculous well that travelled with her, supplying water to the entire encampment.  Now the water had dried up.  The people cry out in thirst, begging Moses for water.  And once again, Moses prays to God.

            God tells Moses to speak to the rock and it will bring forth water.  Instead, Moses reprimands the people, crying out, “Listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock.”  He then hits the rock twice, and water comes forth.  According to the Midrash (Rabbinic Interpretations), Moses hit the rock once and a few drops came out, so he hit it a second time for enough water to come out.  God then tells Moses, because you did not sanctify me before the community of Israel, you will not enter the Holy Land.

            What precisely was Moses’ sin that deserved such a harsh punishment?  There is much speculation by the Rabbis.  The most obvious answer is that God told Moses to speak to the rock and Moses disobeyed, hitting the rock not once but twice.  Nonetheless, earlier in Exodus Moses had been told to hit a rock for water.  One could understand his action of hitting the rock rather than speaking to it.  It seems the punishment does not fit the crime.

            Some say that Moses did not give God credit for the miracle.  He said, “Shall we get water,” not “shall God get water.”  He took credit for a miracle without mentioning God.  Nonetheless, here also it seems that the punishment does not fit the crime.  There has to be a deeper reason why God would not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land.

            Allow me what I believe to be the real reason why Moses was punished.  Moses lost his temper.  He was a man who could not control his anger.  And when anger is out of control, it undermines one’s ability to lead.  As the book of Proverbs teaches, “A hot-tempered man provokes a quarrel; A patient man calms strife” (Proverbs 15:18).  The Israelites, suffering from thirst, need a calming presence, not someone who would castigate them.  God knows that by losing patience with the people, not just in this incident but several other times, Moses has lost his ability to lead.

            An important question is whether anger is good or bad.  Anger like all other emotions must be controlled.  Even God is “slow to anger.”  But anger does play an important role in human emotions.  In the face of injustice, anger is the appropriate response.  Moses sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, realizes that no one is willing to take action to stop it, and so rises up and kills the Egyptian.  (see Exodus 2:11-12).  Part of Moses’ greatness was his willingness to stand up to injustice, even at the risk of his own safety.  Of course, after these events Moses has to flee Egypt.

            I rarely see animated movies, but I just saw Inside Out 2.  I loved the first Inside Out and looked forward to the sequel.  It is the story of the different emotions and the role they each play in the head of a young girl named Riley.  One of the most important emotions playing a role in Riley’s head is Anger, voiced by the actor Lewis Black.  The other emotions try to keep Anger under control.  But sometimes they let Anger vent, realizing that it has an important role in the human psyche.  Part of the cleverness of both movies was the way they personified human emotions in a way similar to the Biblical point of view.  We need anger, but that anger must be under control.